Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Decline (and maybe fall) of Death Row

Share

A little-noticed anniversary slipped by here last week, as Iraq sank further into the mire and the rest of us idly wondered how a kidnapped 15-year-old Missouri boy, armed with a cellphone and ample opportunity to escape, allowed himself to remain captive for four years. All of which obscured the fact that 30 years ago, on 17 January 1977, Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad - and, after a decade's hiatus, that the death penalty had returned to America.

Double murderer Gilmore, as anyone who has read Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song will remember, wanted to die. And just six months after his conviction, his wish was granted. Since then, the trappings of his death have become part of the ghoulish lore of capital punishment, American-style: the media circus, the liquor-fuelled "wake" of friends and family in the prison mess hall the evening before his death, the "See You in Hell" he sneered to two fellow death-row inmates he couldn't stand as he was led past their cells on the way to the abandoned cannery behind the prison where the five-man firing squad waited.

Then there were those famous last words, "Let's do it", to his executioners - a phrase that opened a new era of state-sanctioned murder in the US, in conformity with amended standards laid down by the Supreme Court.

Three decades on, however, a subversive notion edges into the mind. Could it be possible that another 30 years down the line, America won't be doing it any more? Right now, of course, it is doing it. Led by Texas, the 38 US states that have the death penalty on their statute books are executing people at a rate of about one a week, making America one of the planet's top four practitioners of capital punishment, alongside those champions of human rights China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

But something is afoot. For one thing, last year's total of 53 executions was barely half the modern era's record of 98 carried out in 1999. Courts are sentencing fewer people to death. At the end of 2006, there were "only" 3,344 people on death row, according to the abolitionist Death Penalty Information Center here in Washington. True, it would take 63 years to clear the backlog at the current rate of lethal injection and electrocution. But that figure is down from the historic peak of 3,601 in 2000.

More important than numbers, attitudes are changing. Of those 38 states, New York has declared its death penalty unconstitutional, while New Jersey (which hasn't carried out an execution since 1977) may formally do away with capital punishment, after a commission appointed by its Governor concluded this month that the system was broken beyond repair. On top of all this, nine states, including Florida and California, last year temporarily suspended executions, faced with growing evidence that their preferred method of lethal injection, accounting for almost nine in 10 of the 1,057 executions carried out nationwide since 1977, was anything but the painless procedure it is cracked up to be.

Other doubts are growing too: the biggest one of all, naturally, that innocent men may have been put to death, following a spate of exonerations through improved DNA testing. Former prison governors and criminologists increasingly question the deterrent value of capital punishment. Finally too, the penny is dropping that you can take homicidal maniacs off the streets for good by other means than killing them.

And events in Iraq might play a tiny part as well. Capital punishment here has been part of the great onward march of technology, towards the "perfect" execution when the victim feels no pain and the sensibilities of those who carry out and witness it are as little bruised as possible.

Then came the secret video of the execution of Saddam, and grisly word of the decapitation of his brother-in-law when he went to the gallows last week. Killing is killing, however presented. Are the Shia executioners who taunted Saddam, murderer of so many of their sect, really worse than the relatives of victims of American murderers, loudly proclaiming that lethal injection is too good for the killer of their loved ones?

No, the death penalty is not about to vanish from America, and certainly not in the southern states that have carried out 756 of the 1,057 executions since Gary Gilmore sat blindfolded in his chair. But something tells me that, 30 years from now, just possibly it may be no more.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones