US turns against death penalty as 1,000th prisoner is executed

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The Independent US

With the final words "God bless everybody in here", Kenneth Boyd became the 1,000th prisoner to be put to death in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated nearly 30 years ago. Campaigners against the death penalty said his execution in North Carolina in the early hours of yesterday marked a macabre milestone.

There are signs, however, that public opinion on the issue is shifting. The most recent polls suggest public support for the death penalty is falling sharply. A Gallup poll in October, suggests that 64 per cent of Americans support the death penalty - down from 80 per cent in 1994. But the figure of 64 per cent falls to just 50 per cent when the alternative of life without parole is presented.

"I think there are a number of reasons for it," said Brenda Soder, of the Death Penalty Information Centre in Washington. "Juries are more reluctant to impose death penalties, partly because almost every state now has the option of life without parole ... There have also been 122 cases of prisoners [on death row] being shown to be innocent."

The death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976 after a 10-year moratorium. The first execution was carried out the following year when Gary Gilmore was put to death by a firing squad in Utah.

In recent years the Supreme Court has tightened the application of capital punishment and has ruled that both the mentally retarded and prisoners who were minors when they committed the crime for which they were sentenced should not be put to death.

In an interview this week, Kenneth Boyd, 57, who was sentenced to death for the 1988 murders of his estranged wife and her father, said he did not want to be remembered as the 1,000th person to be put to death. He told the Associated Press news agency: "I'd hate to be remembered as that. I don't like the idea of being picked as a number."

Boyd was pronounced dead at 2.15am. His execution took place after both the Supreme Court and the Governor of North Carolina declined to intervene.

After the execution by lethal injection, Boyd's lawyer, Thomas Maher, said: "The execution of Kenneth Boyd has not made this a better or safer world. If this 1,000th execution is a milestone, it's a milestone we should all be ashamed of."

During the 1988 shootings, Boyd's son Christopher was pinned under his mother's body as Boyd shot her with a .357-calibre Magnum. The boy was able to push his way under a bed to escape and another son grabbed the gun while Boyd tried to reload.

The prosecutor, Belinda Foster, said the evidence of the crime supported a death sentence. "He went out and reloaded and came back and called 911 and said 'I've shot my wife and her father, come on and get me'," she said. "And then we heard more gunshots. It was on the 911 tape."

Sam Page, the Rockingham County Sheriff, was among the witnesses who watched Boyd die. Afterwards, he said: "Tonight, justice has been served for Mr Kenneth Boyd. What I would ask you to do is not forget the victims of this crime, Ms Boyd, Mr Curry, their family, their kids, their grandkids. Pray for them. Pray for them and their healing."

Attention on Boyd and his distinction of being the 1,000 prisoner to be executed is already moving on. Execution number 1,001 was scheduled to take place last night in South Carolina where Shawn Humphries was to be put to death for the murder of a store worker in 1994.

Amnesty International says executions were carried out in 25 countries last year, with 97 per cent of all death sentences being imposed out in just four - China, Iran, Vietnam and the US. The majority were carried out in China.

Amnesty said capital punishment was prohibited in 86 countries and rarely imposed in another 25 countries. It is still used in 85 countries, although in 11 of those nations it is limited to "exceptional crimes" such as war crimes.

High-profile inmates

* KENNY RICHEY

Richey, a Briton whose death sentence was overturned earlier this year, could return to death row after the Supreme Court ruled that a lower court had erred when it declared that the 41-year-old had not received a fair trial. Richey, born in Scotland and convicted of an arson attack in Ohio which killed a young girl, has always maintained his innocence.

* 'TOOKIE' WILLIAMS

Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the founder of the Crips street gang in Los Angeles, has spent 24 years on death row. He was convicted of the murders of three people in 1979 and is due to be executed on 13 December.

* ROBIN LOVITT

Lovitt was to have been the 1,000th prisoner put to death but the Governor of Virginia commuted his sentence this week to life without parole. Lovitt was convicted in 2000 of murdering a pool hall employee during a robbery. Clemency was granted because evidence from the trial was "improperly destroyed".

* DARYL ATKINS

In June 2002 the Supreme Court ended the death penalty for the mentally retarded. The issue focused on the case of a convicted killer, Daryl Atkins. But this August a court ruled that Atkins was not mentally retarded and a judge set an execution date.

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