Tomorrow will mark the 1,000th execution since 1977, writes Harry Mount in New York
The modern era of capital punishment reaches a macabre milestone tomorrow with America’s 1,000th execution since it reintroduced the death penalty in the 1970s.
Barring a miraculous last minute pardon, Robin Lovitt, 41, will be executed tomorrow for the crime of fatally stabbing a man with scissors in a Virginia pool hall robbery in 1998.
Were it not for the landmark it represents, Lovitt’s death would be as unremarkable as that of those condemned to death before him – or even the murder of his victim.
Over the past 28 years the United States has on average executed one person every 10 days.
And the conveyor belt is so efficient that reports of executions are hidden inside the local papers.
Indeed the condemned criminal’s choice of menu for his last meal inspires as much interest as the method with which the sentence is carried out.
In Lovitt’s case, however, he still has to make up his mind whether to die by electric chair or lethal injection in Sussex state prison in Waverly.
His execution will also mark a grisly hat trick: three executions in three days, with Eric Nance (number 998) due to die late last night in Arkansas and John Hicks (999) today in Ohio.
The death penalty appeared itself condemned in the 1960s amid a consensus that it amounted to one of the “cruel and unusual punishments” outlawed by the constitution.
The Supreme Court imposed a de facto moratorium on the practice in 1968. But the legal pendulum then swung back and in 1976 the ban was lifted.
The first criminal to be executed after capital punishment’s return was also the most famous condemned man of modern times: Gary Gilmore.
He was shot dead by a Utah firing squad in 1977 for the murder of a motel manager and was the hero of Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song.
Now more than 3,400 prisoners, including 118 foreigners, await sentence on death row.
One of them is British, Kenny Richey, who could again face execution after the Supreme Court yesterday overruled his successful appeal against his death sentence in Ohio.
The state of affairs whereby the US is the only Western democracy which routinely executes its citizens goes almost unnoticed outside America itself.
Sympathy for the victims of violent crime and a desire for retribution ensure that support for the death penalty runs deep.
“Since 1999 we’ve had 100,000 innocent people murdered in America,” said Michael Paranzino, the head of Throw Away the Key, which backs the death penalty. “But nobody is planning on commemorating all those people killed.”
Capital punishment is rarely raised in national politics, although Bill Clinton boosted his 1992 election campaign by flying home to Arkansas to sign the death sentence of a mentally retarded man.
While the governor of Texas from 1994 to 2000, President George W Bush presided over 152 executions.
It says something about the US debate over capital punishment that one of its foremost opponents is British.
“The protests have gone quiet,” said Clive Stafford-Smith, 46, a British human rights lawyer and the head of Reprieve, which fights for the lives of those facing the death penalty.
“The death penalty has gone off the boil on the top list of hot political issues, mainly due to the paranoia about terrorists.”
Even as protests against the death penalty subside, the numbers being executed are dwindling.
Death sentences nationwide have dropped by 50 per cent since 1999, with executions carried out down by 40 per cent, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre.
Twelve states do not have the death penalty and two, Illinois and New Jersey, have formal moratoria on capital punishment.
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