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Botched US execution sparks death penalty debate

A botched execution in the US state of Oklahoma last month is leading to renewed nationwide debate about the capital punishment.

WEST VIRGINIA: A botched execution in the US state of Oklahoma last month is leading to renewed nationwide debate about the capital punishment.

Amnesty International says America executes more people than any democracy -- only China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia execute more -- but nonetheless, use of the death penalty is becoming less prevalent, and public opinion more mixed.

Jerry Givens, Virginia’s state executioner from 1982 to 1999, legally put to death 37 people with the electric chair and 25 with lethal injection.

“I used to be the executioner, so you know I had to believe in it, and I believed in it to a point where I took the lives of people,” he said.

However, Mr Givens eventually had a change of heart.

He said: “When I found out an innocent guy was placed on death row, that would change me about thinking that way, because if I had executed him, there's no way I can bring him back.”

His opinions reflect his fellow Virginians' own changing views and ambiguous responses to the use of the death penalty.

Some Virginians believe that capital punishment would help to stem violent crime, while others say that there were cases in which people were found to be innocent only after they were executed.

Shujaa Graham, a former death row inmate, could easily have been one of those cases.

He spent three and a half years on death row for a crime he did not commit, and recalls the moment he was finally told to prepare himself for execution.

“You are just hoping it will be quick, that's all you can hope. You don't want it to happen, but you don't want... to suffer,” he said.

“You see just the psychological fact of being subjected to the death penalty is enough torture. You're sat there and you see 47 people walk down and you don't know when your day will come.”

With strong legal support and four trials, Shujaa was ultimately acquitted on all charges and released in 1981, joining a group of over 140 Americans wrongfully sentenced to die.

He said: “We can resolve our problems and deal with our problems in society without having to result in killing to prove that killing is wrong. We must evolve,”

But more recently, even the case of someone who declared himself guilty has also helped sway public opinion against capital punishment.

Clayton Lockett was a convicted murderer and rapist who was to be put to death by lethal injection in Oklahoma. Officials say the vein in his groin used to supply the drugs collapsed.

After 43 minutes into the process, Lockett died of a heart attack. President Obama has called the case “deeply troubling” and experts say he is not alone.

“For those states that are having serious questions of their own about the death penalty, this is the very sort of bad publicity that would make a state say, ‘you know, why? Why are we doing that?’” said Corinna Lain, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

“The fact of the matter is it's 10 to 15% of local jurisdictions, of counties in the US, that are actually using the death penalty. That's a very small percentage.”

States have their differences when it comes to the issue of capital punishment. In West Virginia for example, a convicted murderer could face the possibility of life in prison. Butt in Virginia, he could end up on death row.

Just a few miles into West Virginia, Debbie Newell, a death penalty supporter, is mourning the loss of her seven-year-old daughter Jessica. She wants the killer to be put to death, not kept in prison for life.

“They're protecting someone, that's not better, that as far as I'm concerned is an animal,” she said.

“They had evidence, the evidence that he did this -- finger prints, fibers, blood. He should be put to sleep. I don't want to even say put to sleep, I would say murdered. I want him murdered the way he murdered my baby.

Jessica was killed by her own uncle, Debbie's brother-in-law. But Debbie says she would still carry out the execution personally if she could.

“Yes, I would love to press the button,” she said.

“He looked that little girl in her face and he beat her in her little head until she died and he doesn't deserve to live. He doesn't deserve to be here, he doesn't deserve our taxpayer money to take care of him.”

Despite the mounting criticisms over botched executions, exonerations of the innocent and the state-by-state disparities, 60 per cent of the American public still agree with this grieving mother. 

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