Capital Punishment

Thirty-eight of the fifty American states have laws permitting them to execute people found guilty of capital crimes. These crimes include murder, kidnapping and other actions that result in the deaths of others. I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember. We discuss the debate about capital punishment on our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is one of the most widely debated issues in the United States today. Opponents say this death sentence is too severe. They say it is often unfair. Others say that people who kill should die for their crime.

In nineteen-seventy-two, the Supreme Court of the United States banned executions. The high court based its decision on two amendments to the Constitution. The court ruled that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment because of the way the states enforced it. But the decision left open the possibility that the Supreme Court might accept capital punishment in the future. The decision meant this could happen if people were executed only for some crimes, under limited conditions.

The high court ruled on the subject again in nineteen-seventy-six. It approved the right of states to make new laws permitting the death sentence. Many states enacted the new laws. Their measures satisfied Supreme Court requirements.

More than eight-hundred men and women have been executed in the United states since nineteen-seventy-six. Almost three-hundred of them were in the state of Texas. Last year, seventy-one people were executed in the United States. Thirty-three of these people died in the state of Texas.

One study shows that about seventy-percent of Americans support the death sentence. But debate is growing. This is especially true after recent events in the state of Illinois.

Since nineteen-seventy-seven, twelve prisoners have been put to death in Illinois. But courts canceled the punishment of thirteen others. They did so after considering new evidence.

Three years ago, the governor of Illinois, George Ryan, decided the state could take no more chances that it might execute people who were not guilty. He suspended all executions in the state until the death penalty system could be studied.

Governor Ryan established a committee of legal experts and other citizens to do this. After a two-year study, the committee raised questions about the fairness of sentencing. It said some prisoners were given bad legal advice. It also discovered wrongdoing by police officers. The committee suggested eighty-five reforms. They included measures to improve collecting and presenting evidence in cases that involved the death penalty.

The group said the death penalty should be ended if these changes were not made. But Illinois lawmakers have not enacted any of the measures containing the committee's proposals.

Mr. Ryan left the office of governor earlier this month. Before doing so, he pardoned four men. He said police had tortured them into falsely admitting guilt. Each man had spent at least twelve years waiting to be executed. Such prisoners are kept in a special place, called death row. Its conditions are more severe than those in other prison areas.

On January eleventh, two days before he left office, Governor Ryan cancelled court orders to execute all one-hundred-sixty-seven people condemned to death in Illinois. He reduced most of the sentences to life in prison. He said the death penalty system in Illinois is not fair.

He said the system cannot separate the innocent from the guilty. Many Americans who oppose capital punishment praised the governor's action. They said they hope it will influence other states. Many leaders of foreign countries also praised the action. The execution of criminals continues to be a dispute between the United States and other democratic nations.

A new governor took office in Illinois earlier this month. Rod Blagojevich (bla-GOY-vitch) says suspending the executions was a mistake. Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine has asked the Illinois Supreme Court to act against ten people whose sentences were reduced. Mr. Devine says these people should return to death row.

Last year, the state of Maryland also suspended executions. But the new governor says he will renew the death penalty.

In recent years, scientific examination of human cells has made legal evidence far more exact. This D-N-A testing has shown that some innocent people have been wrongly found guilty of murder.

About ten years ago, a United States House of Representatives committee reported about the death sentence. At that time, it said sixty-eight people had been released from death row because they were wrongly sentenced. Some organizations that oppose the death penalty say more than one-hundred people have been found innocent after being sentenced to die. A new play called "The Exonerated" tells about six of these people. The play is being produced in New York City and several other cities.

Civil rights leaders, university professors and other critics denounce the death penalty as cruel. They also say some studies show that executing killers does not stop other people from committing similar crimes. Some studies say government lawyers seek the death penalty more often for accused African Americans than for white people. Several studies say the race of the victim is important. They say more black people get the death sentence for killing white people than do black people who kill other blacks.

Ira Robbins is a law professor at the American University in Washington, DC. He says bad legal representation damages the death penalty system. A judge often appoints lawyers to defend poor people accused of capital crimes. But many of these lawyers receive very low pay. Mr. Robbins says they often fail to spend enough time on capital cases. He says they often do not present evidence that could help the people they are defending.

In addition, courts in some states are far more likely to use the death sentence than others. For example, Texas has put to death far more people than any other state.

President Bush is a former governor of Texas. He supports the death penalty. And many law-enforcement officials and other legal experts also support it.

For example, in Illinois, Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine says the criminal justice system needs the death sentence. He says executing people found guilty of terrible crimes helps prevent others from doing the same.

Death penalty supporters note that courts work hard to administer justice. They say the courts have the right to order the punishment they believe is correct. Some courts hear cases for weeks, even months, before making a decision.

Death penalty supporters point to the cost of imprisoning someone for life. Some states pay forty-thousand dollars each year to keep a criminal in prison. They say cost is especially important because many people found guilty of murder are young.

Supporters of capital punishment recently have formed groups to research its effect. Members include professors, social scientists and many others.They do not believe that racial prejudice against African Americans influences sentencing. They also question the number of reportedly innocent people freed from death row. Death penalty supporters say technical mistakes during their trials saved many of these accused killers. Many families of murder victims also support the death penalty. They say they suffer because the killers of their loved ones are permitted to live.

The Amnesty International human rights group says most nations in the world do not use the death penalty. It says the United States is on the wrong side of history on this important human rights issue. The organization has urged all of America's states to end capital punishment. But many legal experts say this will never happen.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Mary Tillotson. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.