A Stay of Execution? Is America Getting over Its Love Affair with the Death Penalty? the Number of Executions Has Been Declining Steadily, and Now the Legality of the "Lethal Injection" Is in Question

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It was yet another example of America leading the world. Barbarous countries around the globe still put prisoners to death by hanging, garotting, firing squads, gassing or electrocution--which the US itself brought to the world in 1888, admittedly. But as soon as the US Supreme Court made its landmark 1976 ruling that executions were not "cruel and unusual punishments" that were therefore outlawed by the constitution's Eighth Amendment, state and federal authorities decided that they would circumvent legal roadblocks once and for all by bringing new levels of sophistication to the art of execution.

Thus the concept of "lethal injection", whereby a prisoner would supposedly die in a peaceful and even humane manner, was invented the following year. Now 98 per cent of executions are carried out by lethal injection, and of the 37 states that have the death penalty only one, Nebraska, still insists on putting its condemned prisoners to death in the electric chair. More routinely, Michael Richard--a 49-year-old man with an IQ of 64, who had been convicted of killing a nurse in 1986--bequeathed 24 packages of instant soup mixes and a soap dish to his relatives before he was strapped down in the notorious Huntsville, Texas, death chamber on 25 September; the deadly fluids duly did their work and Richard was pronounced dead at 8.23pm.

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I mention this pathetic but all-too typical case for several reasons. First, despite the presence of no fewer than 3,350 on death rows in America and the executions of 1,088 men and 11 women since 1976, it now looks likely that Richard will be the last man executed in America for many, many months to come--certainly for the longest moratorium since that of 1972-76.

The reason is that the US Supreme Court decided on the very day Richard died (coinciden-tally, I'm sure) to hold hearings next January in what will be another landmark death penalty case, that of Baze v Rees: two prisoners on death row in Kentucky are petitioning that lethal injection itself, not execution per se, is cruel and unusual punishment. The high court showed it meant business on 30 October, when it halted the execution of convicted murderer Earl W Berry--who was literally strapped down ready in a Mississippi death chamber--just 19 minutes before he was due to die.

The case before the nine-member court is much more narrow than that of 1976, but the verdict is unlikely to come before next summer. We can't expect any sensational decision from a court where four of the sitting judges were nominated by the Presidents Bush either, but their very willingness to accept the case reflects a subtle change of mood throughout America. Richard was only the 42nd prisoner to be executed this year, compared with 53 last year and 60 theyearbefore; thepeak, of98, was reached in 1999.

The number of people sentenced to death has almost halved in the past decade, meanwhile, and the Supreme Court has already made two 21st-century milestone rulings: that neither juveniles nor the "mentally retarded" can be put to death (though Texas, which is way ahead in the execution league tables, apparently decided that Richard's IQ did not place him in that category).

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America is still one of the world's Big Six when it comes to putting its citizens to death--along with China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Sudan--but it no longer has quite the same zealous enthusiasm I remember from barely a decade ago. Gallup says that around 65 per cent of Americans still favour the death penalty, and only one of the 2008 presidential frontrunners has the courage to oppose it. But now a slim majority of the population say they would prefer life sentences without parole if that was an alternative to death.

The nation is also slowly waking up to the costs of maintaining the legal machinery of death, especially when people realise that only 0.3 per cent of murders results in an execution; a study found that New Jersey alone, which has not executed anybody since 1963, has spent $256m in such costs since 1983. …