The 5-Minute Briefing: Executions in the US

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The Independent US

Thus far, 22. Early yesterday Connecticut put to death the serial killer Michael Ross for a string of murders two decades ago, in the state's first execution since 1960. On Thursday, George Miller was given a lethal injection at Oklahoma's state penitentiary for a murder in 1994. At this pace, this year will see exactly the same number of executions as 2004 - 59.

How many people have been executed in the US this year?

Thus far, 22. Early yesterday Connecticut put to death the serial killer Michael Ross for a string of murders two decades ago, in the state's first execution since 1960. On Thursday, George Miller was given a lethal injection at Oklahoma's state penitentiary for a murder in 1994. At this pace, this year will see exactly the same number of executions as 2004 - 59.

Where do most executions take place?

Overwhelmingly in the south and south-west - 966 people have been put to death since capital punishment resumed in 1976 - after a brief period when it was barred by the Supreme Court as "cruel and unusual punishment" in breach of the 8th amendment of the US Constitution. More than a third (341) have been in Texas. A further 300 have been in the states of the old Confederacy. In addition, Oklahoma has conducted 76 executions, and neighbouring Missouri 62. Of the 50 states, a dozen (as well as the District of Columbia) do not have a death penalty statute. They are mostly in New England and the upper mid-West. Of the 38 death-penalty states, five have not executed anyone since 1976.

Is the death penalty becoming more popular?

No. The first New England execution in two generations might suggest otherwise, but in fact support for, and the use of, capital punishment is slowly declining. Executions fell from a peak of 98 in 1999 to 59 last year. More significantly, the number of death sentences passed by state courts fell to 125 in 2004, the lowest since 1976, and far below the recent 1994 peak of 304. Overall support for the death penalty is down to 66 per cent, compared with a high of 80 per cent, according to Gallup. Given a sentencing choice between life in prison without parole and the death penalty, support for the latter falls to 50 per cent. In Houston, seat of Harris County, Texas - the "death penalty capital" of the US - 64 per cent of people prefer life without parole. Illinois has a moratorium on executions, while in two other death-penalty states, New York and Kansas, the statute has been declared unconstitutional.

Why is this?

In part because of fears that mistakes have been made. It has not been established that an innocent person has been put to death since 1976, but 119 people have been freed from death row after proof of their innocence. Another reason is cost. Death penalty cases cost three times more than non-capital cases.

In Florida, each execution costs the state $24m (£13m). The death penalty is unfairly applied. Blacks and poor people are far more likely to be sentenced to death than those who can afford expert defence lawyers.

So will the Supreme Court abolish capital punishment?

No way. The death penalty is a matter for individual states. Instead the high court is nibbling at the edges. It outlawed the execution of mentally retarded inmates in 2002, and in February banned capital punishment for offenders under 18. The 5-4 ruling enraged conservatives by citing "international norms". But it reflected an uneasy and growing awareness among Americans that on the death penalty, the US keeps some unattractive company. It executes more people annually than any country except China, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Expect the current declining trend to gradually continue.

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