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March 10 2009 | UNITED STATES


America has a cultural divide on death penalty

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America has a cultural divide on death penalty


NEW YORK _ Roe Wilson sounds at peace with the fact that she has handled or supervised 91 executions in the 20 years she has overseen capital case appeals.

«I've seen what these defendants have done to people,» said Wilson, an assistant district attorney in Harris County, Texas _ the busiest death penalty county in America's busiest death penalty state.

Several cases in particular come to mind for her, including a man accused of killing his adoptive parents, two sisters and brother-in-law. The victims were suffocated or fatally beaten with a crowbar, then bound with tape and plastic ties and burned. He died proclaiming his innocence.

«When crimes happen, what you read in the newspapers is so antiseptic. They don't say what the bodies looked like,» she said.

Wilson's views are not unusual, particularly in America's conservative Southern states where the biblical view of an eye for an eye rings true. Such states remain committed to capital punishment despite signs that other parts of the U.S. are moving away from it.

Countrywide, death sentences and executions have been on a steady decline for more than a decade. Legislation being debated in several states to abolish capital punishment is getting more attention than in the past.

President Barack Obama has said he is in favor of executions only in extreme cases, but has otherwise mostly avoided the issue and has no direct sway over states' death penalty laws. But he could appoint more liberal justices to federal courts who are less likely to impose death sentences.

Observers caution that the death penalty is not likely to end soon in a country where polls still show 60 percent of people support executions. They point to the mostly conservative American South as the major reason.

«What everybody needs to know is that this is a highly diverse country, and that what happens in one or two or three states is not an indicator of a national trend,» said Richard Bonnie, a law professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on capital punishment.

«There is virtually no likelihood that in the foreseeable future that southern states will abolish the death penalty,» he added.

Of the 1,151 executions nationwide since the U.S. Supreme court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the vast majority _ 951 _ occurred in the South, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. Texas alone _ the home state of former President George W. Bush _ had 431.

Eleven states out of the 36 that have it are considering abolishing the death penalty, though one of the states with pending legislation is Texas, and the bill is not expected to get far. The remaining 10 have had a total of 30 executions since 1976. And two of those, New Hampshire and Kansas, had no executions at all.

Death penalty opponents point to the fact some of these bills have been provoking more of a debate than in past years as a sign of progress, an indication that minds are changing.

In part, recent death row exonerations prompted by improved methods of testing physical evidence, including DNA samples, have planted seeds of doubt. And changes to state laws also have made a difference, as more states have been giving juries the option of imposing life without parole rather than death.

Financial necessity also is a driving factor. The death penalty is an expensive proposition _ trials often require extra lawyers for appeals and higher security costs _ and cash-strapped states are responding to the notion that it is cheaper to imprison people for life. However once the recession recedes, so could the urge to abolish capital punishment.

«They're getting debate, and that is highly unusual,» said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. But «this is not an indication that the death penalty is going to be gone in two years. It's a ferment, not a revolution.»

What will likely happen is that the cultural divide between the regions will grow wider. In the past, close to 80 percent of executions have occurred in the South, now the percentage is closer to 90, Dieter said. «If it's being practiced just in one region it becomes more suspect,» he said.

Wilson, the prosecutor in Harris County, Texas, argued that different regions have different needs, and should not impose their views on each other.

«If you live, say, in Vermont, their crime rate is exceedingly low for violent crime ... it's easier to take the moral high road if it's in the abstract,» Wilson said.

Nonetheless, there are signs that the U.S. is slowly moving away from the ultimate punishment _ even in the South. Death sentences dropped from 295 in 1993 to 111 in 2008 nationwide, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Death sentences also have dropped in the South.

«Things are definitely changing. It's changing here,» said Richard Rosen, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an opponent of capital punishment.

North Carolina, a Southern state, hasn't put an inmate to death in more than two years and is not likely to do so soon, due to an ongoing legal battle over whether doctors can be involved in lethal injections.

«Change is slower in the South, but it is coming,» Rosen said. «We're on a different swing now. Though I've been around long enough to realize the pendulum can swing the other way.»

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