U.S. one of few countries to execute inmates

Published: Thursday, June 17 2010 12:56 p.m. MDT

Death penalty by state

Deseret News graphic,

SALT LAKE CITY — As random as being struck by lightning.

That's how some describe the system that sends some condemned prisoners to die while others wait through a life sentence. Statistics collected from across the country and around the world reveal a complicated patchwork of laws and practices.

"It's arbitrary on many levels," said University of Utah law professor Dan Medwed. "Depending on jurisdiction, even the individual prosecutor, you may live or die."

As Utah executes its seventh inmate since 1976, debate still swirls around the death penalty and its usefulness. But regardless of how people feel about capital punishment, statistics collected by many organizations and governments put the debate in a larger, sometimes startling, context.

In the United States, 35 states still execute inmates convicted of capital crimes. Of those states, Utah sits in the middle of the pack, ranked 19th for per-capita executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Thirty-five states as well as the federal government and the military use lethal injection as the primary form of execution, according to the center.

Electrocution can still be used in nine states, five states allow the gas chamber, and two states still allow hanging.

Oklahoma allows the firing squad only if lethal injection and electrocution were to be ruled unconstitutional. Utah allows this method for inmates, including Ronnie Lee Gardner, who chose this method before the Legislature banned the practice.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s, Texas and Virginia have carried out nearly half of all executions in the U.S.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have banned the death penalty, although people convicted of a federal capital offense, such as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, may still be put to death in any state.

A long history of "retributive punishment" often contributes to the continued use of the death penalty in many states, said North Carolina-based lawyer Anne Arceneaux, who works with defendants as part of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project.

On the world stage, the statistics are striking: Last year, the United States was the lone country in both North and South America, and one of only 18 countries worldwide, to carry out an execution, according to Amnesty International.

Why the United States continues to use capital punishment is a complicated question, Medwed said.

The federal system in America allows states to decide whether to allow the death penalty and courts have ruled that states are "clearly within their rights to use capital punishment," said University of Utah international law professor Wayne McCormack, but it also depends heavily on the "idiosyncrasies of local politics."

"Compared to much of the world, we're a relatively young country," he said. "We continue to have a much of a frontier mentality."

Despite many people who argue that the death penalty is a vital deterrent to crime, that sentiment may be changing, Arceneaux said.

"The trend is certainly toward the abolition of the death penalty in the United States," she said. "I think the tide is turning."

Medwed agreed and called the abolition of the death penalty "inevitable."

Citing what he calls the "innocence revolution," Medwed said the growing concern over wrongful convictions has many Americans thinking twice.

"Because of the regrettably large number of exonerated inmates, I think the use of capital punishment will inevitably diminish," he said. "As more information gets out there, people will realize it doesn't work."

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