U.S. EXECUTIONS UNDER RENEWED SCRUTINY
February 3, 2007: the death penalty is under what may be an unprecedented review in the United States, mostly involving questions about lethal injection, by far the most common method of execution.
"Although many of the stays of executions are due to the lethal injection process, the openness of courts, of governors and legislators to reconsider issues that were thought to be settled is a sign of broad discomfort with the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, head of the Death Penalty Information Centre, which works against capital punishment.
About one-third of the 38 states that allow capital punishment have halted or delayed executions while legal and ethical challenges are resolved.
The latest was Tennessee where the governor recently ordered a 90-day halt to executions, including two that were scheduled for February. He called for a comprehensive review of current execution procedures and future protocols.
Gov. Phil Bredesen said he supports capital punishment, but the state, in preparing to address a legal challenge to lethal injection, had found "deficiencies with our written procedures that raise concerns that they are not adequate to preclude mistakes in the future."
One issue in Tennessee involves vagueness on how much of the deadly drugs need to be administered, he said.
Nationwide, some state lawmakers and courts are debating whether the condemned unduly suffer during execution, in violation of the Constitution's guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.
Last year, Florida halted executions after a convicted killer took 34 minutes to die when the needles carrying the drugs were improperly inserted.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland ordered a stay of three executions a few weeks ago so he could closely evaluate appeals for clemency.
North Carolina called a temporary halt to capital punishment as it weighs whether doctors need to be present when executions are carried out.
"The breadth of the states halting executions and the number of issues being reviewed is unprecedented in the modern era of the death penalty," Dieter told Reuters.
"The public is also beginning to wonder whether a program with so many problems and risks is worth keeping, for whatever supposed value it might have," he added.
There have been four executions in 2007, three in Texas and one in Oklahoma, bringing to 1,061 the number of executions carried out in the United States since capital punishment was restored in 1976.
In January, there were eight executions stayed in as many days. The reasons varied. Last year, the 53 executions carried out were the fewest in 10 years.
According to Dieter's group, Illinois and New Jersey have a formal moratorium on all executions, while lethal injection issues have also halted them in Arkansas, California, Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and South Dakota, in addition to the other states mentioned.
Polls indicate a majority of the U.S. populace supports capital punishment, though the numbers have dropped since some states adopted life-without-parole options for courts to consider. (Sources: Reuters, 03/02/2007)