Texas 'capital for executions'

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The human rights organisation Amnesty International has criticised the state of Texas for the number of executions it carries out, saying that it comes "perilously close" to matching the "astoundingly high" rates of execution in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Amnesty's statement, demanding an end to the executions in Texas, was timed to coincide with the killing by lethal injection of Robert Madden, 33, for the double murder of a father and son.

Madden is the 387th person to be executed in the United States since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976, and the 123rd in Texas. Amnesty points out that Texas accounts for almost one-third of US executions, and that its rate far exceeds that of any other state.

A long-standing campaigner against the death penalty anywhere in the world, Amnesty cited statistics to support its argument that increased use of the death penalty has not been accompanied by a fall in violent crime in Texas.

In drawing attention to the execution rate in Texas, Am-nesty echoed concern expressed in US media reports, which have described Texas as the "capital of capital punishment". Four people were executed there last week alone, and Madden's execution brings the total to eight for the month of May. Eleven are scheduled for June.

The Texas authorities acknowledge that the rate is high, but say it has been distorted in the past year because of a hiatus in 1996 while a new appeals procedure was challenged in the courts. It says the rate has also been higher because it is trying to reduce the average eight years that condemned prisoners spend on "death row". If this policy continues, the rate is likely to increase: some 450 people are awaiting execution in Texas.

Several reasons are advanced, aside from the policy "blip", for the high rate of execution in Texas. Some refer to the state's persisting "frontier" mentality and say that "an eye for an eye" sentiments are stronger there than elsewhere. Others say it reflects the fact that Texas, like a number of other states, does not have a sentence of "life imprisonment without parole".

Others, however, say Texas has simply been quicker to respond to the hardened public mood in the face of violent crime, and that other states will follow. Certainly, the rate of executions has increased sharply in most states since 1994, as has the length of prison sentences and the use of life sentences. While Amnesty and liberal opinion in the US may express misgivings about the death pen-alty and how it is applied, public opinion is of the view that "the more the better".