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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Friday, August 1, 2008

No end in sight to death penalty wrangling

More than 30 years after it was reinstated by the nation’s highest court, the death penalty in the

United States

still faces serious legal and political challenges, even as a persistent majority of the American public believes convicted murderers should be executed.

The

United States

is among a handful of industrialized countries to sanction capital punishment, and it has executed more than 15,000 people since colonial days. More than 1,100 prisoners have been put to death since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for executions to resume following a decade-long national hiatus.

But while the death penalty today stands as a fixture of American criminal justice, authorized by the federal government and 36 states, its use has declined steadily in recent years as it has run into a host of obstacles in state capitals and in the courts.

The Supreme Court, always at the center of the nation’s debate over the death penalty, this year sought to resolve long-running disputes over how and when executions can be carried out. But a pair of landmark decisions — one upholding lethal injection and the other outlawing the death penalty for those who rape children but do not murder them — exposed sharp divisions in the public, among politicians and on the high court itself over when, if ever, capital punishment is appropriate.

Meanwhile, the justices’ April decision to uphold lethal injection did not immediately resolve the debate over the controversial procedure. Executions by that method remained on hold in many parts of the country, and lawyers for death-row inmates quickly filed appeals based on what they saw as new avenues included in the high court’s ruling.

In the states, which carry out almost all

U.S.

executions, legislative activity and more court rulings have narrowed where the death penalty can be used. In December 2007, New Jersey became the first state in more than 40 years to abolish capital punishment legislatively, while the Nebraska Supreme Court in February struck down the electric chair — the state’s only method of execution — as unconstitutional “torture.” The decision left the state with the death penalty but no legal means of carrying it out. [Mark Godsey]

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