David Usborne writes, "The Big Question: Why is the United States still imposing the death penalty?" from New York. Here's an excerpt:
What America does in its own prisons is its own business, most of the time. That was not true on Tuesday night, however, when a lethal injection was administered to a Mexican national in Huntsville prison, Texas, convicted in a case of gang rape and strangulation of two teenage girls in Houston 15 years ago.
The death of Jose Medellin brought an instant diplomatic protest from Mexico, which had demanded that he and 50 other Mexicans on death row in America be allowed consular access, as required by a treaty to which the US is a signatory.
The International Court of Justice in The Hague has twice in the past five years ruled that the US should hold hearings on the status of foreign nationals on death row. The White House had asked Texas at least to delay the execution. But on Tuesday night, Texas defied George Bush and the world after a last-minute appeal to the US Supreme Court on behalf of Medellin was turned down.
Are there other foreign nationals on death row?
As of the end of last year, there were 123 foreign nationals awaiting execution in the US. Although Mexicans make up the largest single contingent, 38 other countries are represented, including Germany and France, but not, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, any currently from the United Kingdom. Most are in California.
Most countries, Britain included, balk at allowing the extradition of prisoners to the US where a possible capital offence is involved and if the state seeking extradition has the death penalty on its books. The British citizen Neil Entwistle was extradited and recently convicted of murdering his wife and daughter in Massachusetts, one of a minority of US states which do not execute prisoners.
So it's not just southern states that have the death penalty?
No. Currently 36 states in the US have the death penalty on their books, including liberal states such as New York and Maryland, while only 14 are without death rows (plus Washington, DC). Since 1976, when a ruling by the US Supreme Court allowed states to begin reintroducing capital punishment, a total of 1,115 people had been executed in the country as of 1 August this year. Of those, 38 per cent were African-Americans, far disproportionate to their share of the population (about 13 per cent). The busiest year for executioners was 1999, when 98 condemned men and women were dispatched.
Texas has executed four times more inmates over the past three decades than any other single state. (The second most assiduous has been Virginia.) It's true that the region loosely termed the South is far more likely to execute than other parts of the country. Not every state that has the option of killing its prisoners actually exercises it. New Hampshire is a capital punishment state but has not executed anyone in decades.