A uniquely American way of death

As a young Briton awaits his impending execution in Georgia, Rupert Cornwell looks at the Death Row phenomenon and Steve Boggan describes the grim reality of the electric chair
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The Independent Online
Nick Ingram (left), a 31-year-old Death Row prisoner in Georgia, is scheduled to be executed next Thursday for the murder 12 years ago of a 61-year-old man during a burglary in Cobb County. If a last legal hearing and an appeal for clemency fail, Cambridge-born Ingram will become the first Briton in living memory to be executed in America.

His defence team and his mother, Anne, have produced evidence to show he had a medical condition which induced a blackout when he is alleged to have robbed JC Sawyer and his wife, tied them to a tree and shot them. Mrs Sawyer survived, but her description of the man who shot her did not tie with Ingram's appearance. Further, the defence says, police were wrong to give immunity to an accomplice who burgled three other homes with Ingram on the day of the murder, yet who claims he was not present for the killing. Detectives found bloodstained shoes in the accomplice's car.

Mrs Ingram, who now lives near the prison in Jackson, Georgia, where Ingram awaits death, says she is "100 per cent certain" her son is innocent. She is appealing to John Major to ask for clemency when he visits the United States next week.

However, Ingram is regarded as a vicious killer in Cobb County and his case is likely to become embroiled in politics because of the local District Attorney's failure to secure the death penalty in a recent high-profile murder case. One government lawyer said: "Ingram's case has dropped just at the right time. The DA is in trouble and we could do with a good execution."

That remark illustrates the gulf in attitudes between America and Britain on the death penalty. It also obscures the grim reality of Death Row which has been a way of life for Nick Ingram, and the horror of the electric chair that may next week end that life. SB

These days, Death Row is a misnomer. Deathville, Death Town, Death City would be a better term for the ever-expanding community of 3,015 people who as of last Monday were awaiting execution in America, confined in maximum security jails scattered across 38 of the 50 states of the Union.

As population explosions go, few match Death Row's. Arithmetic provides part of the explanation. Each year, 20,000 murders are committed in the US, and 250 to 300 people are sentenced to death. But the highest number of executions carried out in a single year since capital punishment resumed in 1976 is 38. Hence the vertiginous rise in the Death Row population from less than 300 in 1974 to 10 times that today.

As appeals are exhausted, and public demand for "get tough" policies intensifies, 1995 could break all recent records: 13 people have been put to death already this year. None the less, it would require an execution a day for the next 26 years to clear the backlog. That prospect might appeal to the big majority of Americans who support the death penalty. But it is not going to happen.

According to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, a group opposed to capital punishment, the average delay between sentencing and execution is eight years and rising. New York this month became the 38th state to adopt the death penalty but, barring a convict who can persuade his lawyers to surrender his every right to appeal, no one will die on a lethal injection stretcher at Sing Sing prison until early next century.

Only on Monday, the Supreme Court rejected the contention of Clarence Lee Lackey that the 17 years he had spent on Death Row in Texas amounted to "cruel and unusual" punishment, in violation of the Constitution. And despite growing impatience with the seemingly endless possibilities of appeal at local, state and federal level, nearly half of all Death Row inmates have been there for a decade or more.

Given the manifest inequities of the system, one might say the procrastination is more than justified. The death penalty in the US is little more than a lottery. If you are poor, black and Southern, you are far more likely to executed than if you are white, reasonably well off and and committed your crime in New Jersey or Ohio. The legal "Dream Team" that OJ Simpson could afford to put together was one reason why California did not even seek the death penalty against the former football star. No such luxury is available to the penniless drifter who shoots dead a liquor store owner in a dusty Texas shopping mall. His chances of avoiding lethal injection will depend on a half-competent public lawyer appointed by a judge, paid as little as $10 an hour, and - as occurred in at least one documented case - liable to sleep at crucial moments in the trial.

Blacks account for 12 per cent of the US population, but 40 per cent of Death Row inmates. Since 1976, 72 blacks have been executed for killing whites, and three whites for killing blacks. And innocent people have been executed - at least 23 this century.

Since 1970, 48 people have been released from Death Row after discovery of new evidence showing their innocence. That was small consolation to Jesse DeWayne Jacobs, put to death at Huntsville, Texas, on 5 January, even though it was determined that he did not commit the murder for which he was convicted. His sister, who did, drew 10 years for manslaughter.

Capping everything are the skewed economics of Death Row. In this brave new Republican era, public spending is anathema. Yet nothing beats capital punishment for squandering taxpayers' money. Since 1976, the 1,000 death- penalty trials conducted in California (yielding two executions) have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, judges on the California Supreme Court spend half their time on death penalty appeals. Between 1973 and 1988, according to the Miami Herald, Florida spent $57m to send 18 people to the electric chair - more than $3m a head, and roughly three times the cost of keeping them behind bars for 40 years. Lawyers are far more expensive than prison guards.

But where capital punishment is concerned, politics overwhelms economic logic. Support for the death penalty runs at up to 80 per cent even in liberal Massachusetts, one of the 12 states in the North and East that does not inflict capital punishment. In the South a candidate who opposes it is committing electoral hara-kiri.

But across the entire country last November, capital punishment was a potent campaign issue, helping sweep George Pataki to victory in New York over that foe of the death penalty, Mario Cuomo. In the past 12 months, Illinois, Nebraska and Maryland, which had virtually abandoned capital punishment, have returned it. Nowhere beats Texas, which has carried out 92 executions since 1976 - including seven this year.

There is every sign that the machinery of state-supervised killing will grow busier. Lethal injection, used by 29 states, has given a "humane" veneer to the macabre process. The Supreme Court is unlikely to produce an equivalent of its 1972 decision that capital punishment in Georgia, the state that is due to electrocute Nick Ingram, was so arbitrary that it violated the constitution - a ruling that halted all executions for four years. Under Clinton, the conservative shift of the Court has stopped. But his appointees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, are pragmatists. The last anti-capital punishment liberal is Justice John Paul Stevens, 74, nominated by President Ford in 1975. This court may pick at the letter of the law, but not at its substance.

38 of America's 50 states use the death penalty, but only nine use the electric chair. Of these three have not operated it for 30 years.

Every `capital case' in America costs on average $2.3m.

Of the 135 countries in the world that use capital punishment, only the US uses electrocution.

Since 1976, 143 people have died in the US by lethal injection, in 29 states.

Since 1976, 115 people have died by electrocution, in 12 states.

The main method of execution in the US is now lethal injection. Gas chambers are no longer used, and hanging is legal in only three states.