Fri, Nov 25, 2005 - Page 1 News List

997 executions on, the US still loves the death penalty

AP , NEW YORK

"Let's do it."

With those last words, Gary Gilmore ushered in the modern era of capital punishment in the US, an age of busy death chambers that could see its 1,000th execution in coming days.

Americans took note when, after a 10-year moratorium, the country got back into the business of executing prisoners by putting Gilmore in front of a Utah firing squad in 1977.

Yet today, most could probably not name even one of the more than 3,400 prisoners -- including 118 foreign nationals -- on death row in the US.

The name Robin Lovitt is not well known, though next week he is likely to earn the macabre distinction of being the 1,000th prisoner put to death since the US widely reinstated capital punishment in 1976 after the Supreme Court validated state laws that reformed the capital punishment system, which has executed 997 prisoners since that time.

Lovitt, 41, was convicted of fatally stabbing a man with scissors during a 1998 pool hall robbery in Virginia. Initial DNA tests of the scissors proved inconclusive. The scissors were subsequently thrown away, supposedly because of a lack of storage space.

Last month the US Supreme Court refused to reconsider Lovitt's case. One of his lawyers, Kenneth Starr, who led the special investigation into former president Bill Clinton in the 1990s, told AP Television News on Wednesday that although he supports the death penalty in principle it should not apply in Lovitt's case for a wide variety of reasons "including above all right now the destruction of the DNA evidence."

Since 1973, 122 prisoners have been freed from death row. The vast majority of those cases came during the last 15 years, since the use of DNA evidence became widespread. That has led some officials to question the fairness of the system.

A Gallup poll last month showed support for the death penalty among Americans to be at its lowest point in 27 years, but that low point translated into a 64 percent approval rating of its use. That is down from a high of 80 percent in 1994.

While the milestone of the 1,000th execution since 1976 has not prompted widespread public debate in the US, some officials have raised questions about the wisdom of the death penalty.

Twelve states do not have the death penalty. At least two states -- Illinois and New Jersey -- have formal moratoriums on capital punishment, and commissions in California and North Carolina are studying the penalty's use, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization.

Former Illinois governor George Ryan -- who invoked his state's death penalty moratorium in 2000 -- took the unprecedented step at the end of his tenure in 2003 of freeing four inmates from death row and commuting 167 others to life sentences, saying the system was "haunted by the demon of error."

Death sentences nationwide have dropped by 50 percent since the late 1990s, with executions carried out down by 40 percent since 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

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