Archive for Thursday, January 2, 2003

Executions a more southern practice

January 2, 2003

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— While the death penalty remains common in most of the United States, executions increasingly take place only in the South, according to the end-of-the-year report from the Death Penalty Information Center.

In 2002, 86 percent of the nation's 71 executions took place in the South.

Texas led the way again with 33 executions, and thereby "accounted for three times as many as the total in the West, Midwest and Northeast states combined," the group said.

California has the nation's largest death row, with 613 inmates condemned to die, yet only one execution was carried out in 2002.

The Texas-California divide on the death penalty is repeated elsewhere. There remains surprisingly little correlation between the number of criminals sentenced to death in a state and the number who are executed there.

Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, like California, have hundreds of inmates on death row, yet rarely carry out an execution.

Smaller states such as Virginia and Oklahoma do not sentence nearly as many to death, but they trail only Texas in carrying out those sentences.

Pennsylvania has 244 inmates condemned to death, but executed no one in 2002 or 2001. Since 1976, the Keystone State has carried out three executions.

Virginia has 26 inmates on death row and carried out four executions in 2002. Since 1976, it has put 87 convicts to death, second only to Texas.

The contrast between the number of death sentences imposed and the number of executions suggests judges, not prosecutors or juries, play the key role. State appellate judges in Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia rarely grant appeals from inmates on death row or reopen their cases for new hearings or investigations.

Federal judges also can intervene in death penalty cases if an inmate can show his constitutional rights were violated. However, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees Texas, and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Virginia, are considered the nation's most conservative and least likely to reopen death penalty cases.

By contrast, federal judges in California, including the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, are known for closely examining the cases of inmates facing death, and they have shown a willingness to reverse convictions or death sentences if they believe the trial was flawed.

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