Who's Who of candidates for execution becomes a hot seller

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ALL THE best reference books need constant updating. But nowhere is the need more pressing than with Death Row, the latest edition of which has just been published in the United States. Deletion is a constant threat for all of its 3,000-plus entries, variously by the gas chamber, lethal injection, hanging or the electric chair.

Death Row is the most comprehensive - indeed, only - guide to American capital punishment. Every inmate in every prison is listed in its pages. Their grim, desperate faces stare out in alphabetical order. And there they remain until the day they die.

Now in its seventh edition, the guide is a trade publication aimed at prison warders, policemen, lawyers and civil rights campaigners. But word of mouth is threatening to make it a best seller. The publishers now hope to seek a wider audience, making the book available through high street book shops and via the Internet.

The editor of Death Row, a Californian called Bobbie Bobit, attributes the growing number of sales to "the public's heightened awareness, almost macabre interest in the death penalty". More than 5,000 copies were sold last year at $24.99 (pounds 14.99) each, and the latest print run seems certain to do even better. Ms Bobit says she would not be surprised if her latest edition becomes America's most popular coffee table book.

In order to attract the widest possible audience, the book pulls the fewest punches possible. The cover of the 1998 edition shows a glossy photograph of a latex-sheathed hand holding a syringe. It belongs, according to the footnotes, to an unnamed doctor in the act of preparing a lethal injection at the moment of execution.

Inside are a number of features, including "Live from Death Row" - a compilation of various jolly anecdotes about the wacky world of capital punishment. Five defence lawyers were caught waging $5 bets over which of their clients would hit "Ol' Sparky" [electric chair] first. There was a man in Oklahoma who took an overdose hours before his execution, had his stomach pumped in the prison hospital, and was then executed at the appointed hour anyway.

The book says that William K Hayes, America's most authoritative chronicler of capital punishment, keeps such accurate records that a number of states call on him each year to verify their total executions. He has notes on more than 17,000 executions dating back to the colonial years, and even chronicles the last meals or last words of the condemned.

The 1998 edition of Death Row also celebrates the extraordinary enthusiasm for capital punishment in Texas, which has put to death almost a third of the 432 Americans executed since the bicentennial in 1976, and 37 out of 74 executions last year.

The busiest execution chamber in America - "the most recent feather in Texas's gallon-sized cap" - is now the Huntsville Correctional Institute, near Houston. Texas has (or had) 444 death row inmates at the end of 1997, including a record 48 teenagers. "Revenge is worn proudly," notes the guide. "Like the tin star on the vest of an old Rawhide sheriff."

At the heart of the guide are the portraits of the killers themselves: 1,200 new faces have arrived since the first edition and only 275 have moved on. The more interesting inmates are given short biographies. Some eyes reflect genuine evil in their portraits, others already look haunted and alone, as if they know what is to come. A high percentage are black.

The entries include Robert McLain, who was convicted in 1981 for abducting a shop assistant in California, raping her, then slashing her throat.

Oba Chandler, squat and impassive, offered to take a woman and her two teenage daughters on a boat ride in Tampa, Florida. Their bodies, naked and sexually abused, were found in the bay weighted down with concrete blocks.

Richard Nitz, an obsessive homophobe, shot Michael Miley in Illinois and then decapitated him to prevent identification.

Frances Newton murdered her husband and two children for a $50,000 insurance claim and became, for a while, the youngest woman on death row in Texas. She has large goofy glasses and lost, hunted eyes that look dead already.

Jamie Wilson walked into a South Carolina elementary school 10 years ago, opened fire and killed two eight-year-olds. The penalty, which he has so far successfully avoided, is death by lethal injection or the electric chair.

Krishna Maharaj, convicted of murdering two business partners in Florida, was the only Briton on death row until his sentence was reduced to life on appeal earlier this year.

To alleviate the unrelenting horrors, the guide's editors have added a few fascinating facts of their own. Did you know that Timothy McVeigh, the Gulf War veteran convicted of the Oklahoma Bombing last June, killed more Americans (168) than Saddam Hussein's troops? Or that James Smith requested dirt as his last meal, but settled for yoghurt?

The Mississippi Supreme Court rejected an appeal by an inmate on death row who claimed his lawyer was too preoccupied with her new lover to give his case her full attention.

Such attention to detail is what makes Death Row essential reading. Inmates have been known to write in, requesting name corrections or offering extra information on their circumstances.

"The escalating interest in death row can be attributed, in part, to a society inundated with media that requires constant feeding," Ms Bobit notes in the preface to the 1998 edition. Business, she says, has never been better.