Texas poised to execute 500th convict since 1976

Woman will receive lethal injection in state that has led way since death penalty restored in 1976

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 6:20am

The US state of Texas is preparing to execute its 500th convict since the death penalty was restored in 1976, a record in a country where capital punishment is in decline.

On Wednesday, in the absence of a last-minute pardon, Kimberly McCarthy, 52, will receive a lethal injection in Huntsville Penitentiary for the 1997 murder of retired college professor Dorothy Booth, 71.

"What we do is we carry out court orders," said Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "It's our obligation to carry this execution out."

Activists opposed to the death penalty are due to gather at the red-brick state prison, known as the "Walls Unit", to mark the milestone with a protest against a punishment they regard as an outdated remnant of another age.

In 1976, the United States Supreme Court lifted a moratorium on the use of the death penalty and since that date 1,336 people have been executed across the country, with more than a third of them dying in Texas alone.

"It is obviously still the leader of executions in the nation, but it is limited to a handful of counties," said Steve Hall of the StandDown Texas Project, which campaigns for reinstatement of the national moratorium.

"Texas leads with the number of executions and death sentences but there is no doubt you are seeing the same trend to decrease that you see nationally."

Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Centre (Dpic), an academic watchdog, agreed.

"Despite this major milestone, we expect the total number of executions to be less than last year and a new drop in death sentences," he said.

According to Dpic figures, there are 3,125 convicts on death row across the nation, and, if Wednesday's execution does go ahead, McCarthy will be the 17th prisoner to have been put to death in the first six months of this year.

But numbers are dropping as 43 people were executed last year down from a peak, in 2002, of 71.

American juries are also imposing capital punishment in fewer cases, with only 78 death sentences last year, down by about 75 per cent since the 1990s, although violent crime is also down.

And, while 32 of the 50 US states still have the death penalty on their statutes, many have imposed a de facto moratorium, with few executions carried out and convicts languishing on death row.

Activists such as Dieter say this shows that these states eventually will formally abolish the penalty, but supporters of the sentence note that it retains the support of American voters.

"By measurements like the number of executions, death sentences and states, the death penalty is in decline," admitted Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School.

Opinion polls consistently show that between 60 per cent and 65 per cent of Americans back the death penalty, indicating that support goes beyond the roughly 50-50 left-right divide in electoral politics.