- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2000

The quickening pace of legal executions in America has spawned a movement to aggressively challenge, if not abolish, capital punishment.
"The first year of the new millennium may find the death penalty being challenged even more forcefully, although executions will certainly continue," says Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center of Washington, which compiles data to undermine public support for executions.
Mr. Dieter says there is new movement in state legislatures, Congress, church groups and among a growing number of former prosecutors and judges whose own experience dampened their zeal to execute murderers.
"Perhaps reflecting a growing concern about the fairness and accuracy of the death penalty in the U.S., five governors granted clemency in five capital cases this year" compared with five over the previous five years, he says.
The policy conclusions are part of an annual statistical report, which shows 98 prisoners were executed during 1999, all but four by injection. One died in the gas chamber and three in electric chairs, which are under legal fire after several gruesome mishaps in Florida.
The Supreme Court will review the constitutionality of electrocution at a hearing set for Feb. 28. The high court has never found any method of execution to be cruel or unusual punishment.
More than half of those executed were white (53), 33 black, eight Hispanic, two Asian, one American Indian and one whose ethnic background was not given.
Those 98 murderers were responsible for the deaths of 127 persons, of whom 104 were white, 15 black, four Hispanic and four Asian. Opponents argue that the racial breakdown suggests that the justice system places a higher value on the lives of white victims.
The rate of executions in 1999 was up 44 percent over the year before. Texas led the nation with 35 executions, up from 20 in 1998; Virginia was second with 14, up by one from the year before.
A total of 551 prisoners are awaiting execution in California, but only two sentences were carried out in 1999. Texas waits to execute 458 condemned prisoners and Virginia, 32.
Maryland, with 17 persons on death row, executed no one last year. Florida, with 393 death-row inmates, conducted one execution; its gruesome details the condemned man caught fire led the Supreme Court to grant opponents a hearing.
Mr. Dieter and other opponents of capital punishment point to a statistic in which 84 prisoners were released from death row since 1976, some of whom were later exonerated.
"The cases of innocent defendants, often spared with only hours to execution, spoke most forcefully of the need for a radical reconsideration of this punishment," Mr. Dieter says.
"Although the momentum of the death penalty is carrying it to a record number of executions, the problems of race, mistakes, inadequate representation and other injustices continue to plague its administration," he says.
The American Civil Liberties Union's "execution watch" took much the same tack, calling the pace of executions a "killing frenzy in our nation's execution chambers."
The ACLU supports a moratorium proposed by members of the American Bar Association, clergymen and other longtime death-penalty opponents.
"The ever-mounting use of the death penalty in the United States should be profoundly disturbing to anyone who values human life, justice and fairness," the ACLU says.

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