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Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Decline (and maybe fall) of Death Row

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.