``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 of busy death
chambers that will likely see its 1,000th execution in the coming days.
After a 10-year moratorium, Gilmore in 1977 became the first person
to be executed following 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
Robin Lovitt, 41, will likely be the one to earn that macabre distinction next
Wednesday, Nov. 30. He was convicted of fatally stabbing a man with scissors
during a 1998 pool hall robbery in Virginia.
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.
Gilmore was executed before a Utah firing squad, after a record of petty crime,
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.
While his case was well-known, most today could probably not name even one
of the more than 3,400 prisoners - including 118 foreign nationals - on death
row in the U.S. In the last 28 years, the U.S. has executed on average 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,'' said Hill.
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.
Race is also is a key question in the debate. Since 1976, 58 percent of those
executed in the U.S. were white while 34 percent were black, according to the
Death Penalty Information Center. But non-Latino whites make up 75 percent of
the U.S. population, while non-Latino blacks comprise just over 12 percent,
according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Some supporters say ending the death penalty would be harmful to poor minorities,
who are disproportionately murder victims.
``Increasingly violent crime is primarily for the working class folks, poor
people and people of color,'' Paranzino said.
Opponents of capital punishment also point to the unfair role of class and
race in death penalty cases. ``There is tremendous arbitrariness to the death
penalty. ... the race of the victims has a lot to do with who winds up getting
executed,'' said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project,
a legal clinic that seeks to exonerate inmates through DNA testing.
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 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
Still, some powerful 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 lessen the ability of defendants in capital cases to appeal to federal
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 vast majority
of those cases came during the last 15 years, since the use of DNA evidence
became widespread. While there is no official proof an innocent person has been
executed, opponents of the death penalty say the number of prisoners whose convictions
have been reversed should fuel skepticism.
``I don't think any rational person seriously examining the evidence can have
any confidence that an innocent hasn't already been executed,'' said Scheck.
Using post-conviction DNA evidence, the Innocence Project has helped in more
than half of the 163 cases vacated - 14 of which were from death row. ``We've
demonstrated that there are too many innocent people on death row,'' Scheck
But that argument does not impress Charles Rosenthal, district attorney for
Harris County, Texas, which has sent more prisoners to the death chamber - 85
- than any other U.S. county and all but two states, Texas and Virginia, according
to Texas Department of Criminal Justice statistics.
``I don't know about every death penalty case in Texas, but I feel quite sure
that no one that this office has had anything to do with was factually innocent,''
Scheck believes Rosenthal's claim is based ``more on faith than fact.'' He
noted that the police DNA lab in Houston has been shut down since 2002 because
an investigation found problems with poor training and contaminated evidence.
``What kind of confidence can you have when the jurisdiction that executes
more people than any other is fraught with unreliable testing results?'' Scheck
In at least two cases, questions are being raised about whether an innocent
person was put to death. In St. Louis, Larry Griffin was convicted for the 1980
fatal shooting of a 19-year-old drug dealer, Quintin Moss. He was executed in
1995. His conviction largely rested on the testimony of a career criminal who
was in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Now, a policeman whose testimony
backed up the criminal's story says the man was lying, and Moss' own family
thinks Griffin was innocent.
In Texas, the case of Ruben Cantu, who was executed in 1993, is receiving attention.
Cantu was convicted in 1985 of killing a man and wounding another during a robbery
attempt that happened the previous year, when he was 17. A decade after his
execution, however, the only witness in the case and Cantu's co-defendant have
both come forward to say he was innocent.
In St. Louis, City Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce has led a review of 1,400
cases to see if DNA evidence can prove the guilt or innocence of those convicted.
With only 12 cases left to review, evidence led to the exoneration of just three
men, none of whom were on death row.
``Most of the time there is testing, it confirms the guilt of the defendant,''
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner is examining Lovitt's case, and could decide whether
or not 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
DNA tests on the scissors used in the stabbing were inconclusive, and the scissors
were later thrown away because of a lack of storage space. One of his lawyers,
former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, said though he supports the death
penalty in principle, it should not apply to Lovitt for reasons ``including
above all right now the destruction of the DNA evidence.''