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Death Sentences in U.S. at Their Lowest Level Since 1976


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VOICE ONE:

Welcome to This is America in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty.

VOICE TWO:

And I'm Faith Lapidus. Our subject this week is capital punishment in the United States.

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VOICE ONE:

Thirty-eight of the fifty American states permit execution for murder and other capital crimes. These are the most serious offense. Some federal crimes are also punishable by death.

The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., notes that executions have decreased. The center says fifty-nine prisoners were executed last year. That was down from ninety-eight executions in nineteen ninety-nine.

Because of legal appeals, executions are usually carried out long after a prisoner is sentenced to death. The N-double-A-C-P Legal Defense Fund reported last month on the number of death sentences in two thousand four. The group says there were one hundred twenty-five death sentences, the lowest number since nineteen seventy-six.

Nineteen seventy-six was the year when the United States Supreme Court renewed the right of states to use capital punishment.

VOICE TWO:

There are some new restrictions, though. In March the Supreme Court ruled against death sentences for young offenders. Five of the nine justices agreed that the death penalty for people under the age of eighteen violates the Constitution. The majority said the same is true for people whose crimes took place when they were under that age.

VOICE ONE:

The Supreme Court said capital punishment for young offenders violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment bars cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority. Justice Kennedy said it would be "morally misguided" to equate the failings of a young person with those of an adult. He said a young person has a better chance of reform.

VOICE TWO:

In two thousand two the Supreme Court ruled that execution of the mentally disabled is unconstitutional.

And, later this year, the court will consider still another case about the death penalty. This one involves a man in the state of Oregon named Randy Lee Guzek. He was put on trial and found guilty in two murders.

At the time of his sentencing, he tried to show new evidence that he said would prove his innocence. The trial court refused to accept it. On appeal, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the lower court was wrong to exclude the evidence.

State officials in Oregon disagree with the state Supreme Court ruling. They are now appealing the decision to the United States Supreme Court.

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VOICE ONE:

Some people would like the United States Supreme Court to ban all executions. Opponents of the death penalty say capital punishment can be administered unfairly. For example, they say blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites for similar crimes.

Opponents say economics play a part. Courts provide a lawyer if a suspect does not have enough money. But the opponents say avoiding a death sentence may depend on the ability to get a good lawyer. It may also depend on where a crime happens.

Since nineteen seventy-six, more than nine hundred people have been executed in the United States. More than eighty percent of these executions have happened in ten states. The highest rates are in the South, the lowest are in the Northeast.

Texas has executed more than one-third of those put to death. Last year Texas courts condemned twenty-three more people. But that was down from forty-three death sentences in nineteen ninety-four.

Ten of the thirty-eight states with capital punishment had no death sentences last year.

Opponents say capital punishment costs more than imprisoning a person for life. The appeals process often continues for years. Opponents also note the risk that innocent people will be put to death by mistake. And they argue that fear of a death sentence does not stop criminals.

VOICE TWO:

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, California, supports capital punishment. The organization says its represents the interests of victims and citizens who obey the law. It says murderers sentenced to life in prison might escape. Or they might kill others while in prison.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation says the families of victims need to know that the killer of their loved one will also die. And the organization notes that the majority of Americans support capital punishment.

About two out of three people questioned for a Gallup Poll in two thousand four approved of execution for murderers. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported similar results in two thousand three. But it noted a drop in support compared to the level in nineteen ninety-six. At that time, seventy-eight percent supported the death penalty.

VOICE ONE:

Another Gallup study showed that a growing number of Americans support another kind of punishment for murderers. That is, life in prison without the possibility of freedom.

But the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation argues that such sentences are undependable. It its words: "Distrust of future courts, governors and legislatures is one of the reasons for support of the death penalty."

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VOICE TWO:

Most executions in the United States take place by poison injection or in the electric chair. The area of prison cells where the condemned are kept is called death row.

Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, have studied death row prisoners. They say at least one hundred fifteen men and women have been released from death rows in the United States since nineteen seventy three. New evidence saved their lives.

These days, new evidence may come from scientific developments such as the use of genetic material collected at crime scenes. Or it may come from simple hard work guided by a strong belief in someone's innocence.

VOICE ONE:

In nineteen ninety-eight, Northwestern University journalism students and their professor investigated the case of a condemned prisoner. Anthony Porter had spent sixteen years in prison. He was found guilty of killing two people in Chicago. A person who saw the crime identified him as the killer.

But the students and their professor discovered that Anthony Porter could not possibly have been responsible. The condemned man was released from death row.

VOICE TWO:

For many people, the debate over capital punishment involves religious issues. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has started a campaign to end the death penalty. Earlier this year, a study by Zogby International showed that forty-eight percent of American Roman Catholics support capital punishment. This compares with sixty-eight percent in other research in two thousand one.

Pope John Paul the Second criticized capital punishment. John Paul said it should be used only in rare cases when society could not be defended in any other way. But United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who is Catholic, argues that the Bible supports capital punishment.

VOICE ONE:

The use of capital punishment began in the earliest days of American history. But in nineteen seventy-two a ruling by the Supreme Court effectively banned executions. The justices said capital punishment was cruel and unusual the way the states enforced it. But the decision left open the possibility that the Supreme Court might rule on the issue again in the future.

Four years later, that is what the high court did. The court approved the right of states to make new laws permitting death sentences. Many states enacted such laws. Their measures satisfied the Supreme Court requirements.

VOICE TWO:

Currently, twelve states and the District of Columbia do not have capital punishment.

Massachusetts, for example, has not executed anyone since nineteen forty-seven. But Governor Mitt Romney has proposed to renew the death penalty for some crimes. These include terrorism and murders involving torture or more than one victim.

Governor Romney has proposed rules designed to prevent innocent people from being sentenced to death. His proposal would permit execution only in cases where there is no possible question of guilt.

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VOICE ONE:

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Cynthia Kirk. Our recording engineer was Kelvin Fowler. I'm Bob Doughty.

VOICE TWO:

And I'm Faith Lapidus. Our programs are on the Internet at voaspecialenglish.com. Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.

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