Thursday, November 24, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — “Let’s do it.”

With those last words, convicted killer Gary Gilmore ushered in the modern era of capital punishment in the United States, an age that will likely see its 1,000th execution in the coming days.

After a 10-year moratorium, Gilmore became the first person to be executed in 1977 after a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that validated state laws to reform the capital punishment system. Since then, 997 prisoners have been executed, and next week, the 998th, 999th and 1,000th are scheduled to die.

Robin Lovitt, 41, will likely be the one to earn that macabre distinction on Wednesday. He was convicted of fatally stabbing a Virginia man with scissors during a 1998 pool hall robbery.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner is examining Lovitt’s case and could decide whether to grant clemency over the weekend. It would be the only likely way Lovitt could avoid execution. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to reconsider the case.

Ahead of Lovitt on death row are Eric Nance, scheduled to be executed Monday in Arkansas, and John Hicks, scheduled to be executed Tuesday in Ohio. Both executions appear likely to proceed.

Twenty-eight years ago, Gilmore was executed by a Utah firing squad, after a record of petty crime, that killing of a motel manager and suicide attempts in prison. His life was the basis for Norman Mailer’s book “The Executioner’s Song” and a TV miniseries.

Although his case is well-known, most people would be hard-pressed to name any of the 3,400 prisoners — including 118 foreign nationals — on death row in the U.S. Since 1977, the U.S. has executed an average of one person every 10 days.

The focus of the debate on capital punishment was once the question of whether it served as a deterrent to crime. Today, the argument is more on whether the government can be trusted not to execute an innocent person.

Thomas Hill, an attorney for a death-row inmate in Ohio who recently won a second stay of execution, thinks the answer is obvious.

“We have a criminal system that makes mistakes. If you accept that proposition, that means you have to be prepared for the inevitability that some are sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit,” Mr. Hill said.

But advocates of the death penalty argue that its opponents are elitist liberals who are ignoring the real victims.

“Since 1999, we’ve had 100,000 innocent people murdered in the U.S., but nobody is planning on commemorating all those people killed,” said Michael Paranzino, president of Throw Away the Key, a group that supports the death penalty.

Death sentences nationwide have dropped by 50 percent since the late 1990s, with executions carried out down by 40 percent, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Twelve states do not have the death penalty, and at least two states — Illinois and New Jersey — have formal moratoriums on capital punishment, according to the center.

An October Gallup poll showed that 64 percent of Americans support use of the death penalty. But that is the lowest level in 27 years, down from a high of 80 percent in 1994.

Still, some political forces are looking to speed up the trying and executing of prisoners. Both houses of the U.S. Congress are considering bills that would reduce the ability of defendants in capital cases to appeal to federal courts.

Proponents of the legislation say such appeals add up to 15 years to the process of executing a prisoner. Detractors say the law will not allow federal courts to review most cases and will result in innocent people being put to death.

Since 1973, 122 prisoners have been freed from death row. The majority of those cases came in the past 15 years, since the use of DNA evidence became widespread.

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