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After Hiatus, States Set Wave of Executions
Less than three weeks after a United States Supreme Court ruling ended a seven-month moratorium on lethal injections, at least 14 execution dates have been set in six states between May 6 and October.
"The Supreme Court essentially blessed their way of doing things," said Douglas A. Berman, a professor of law and a sentencing expert at Ohio State University. "So in some sense, they're back from vacation and ready to go to work."
Experts say the resumption of executions is likely to throw a strong new spotlight on the divisive national - and international - issue of capital punishment.
"When people confront a new wave of executions, they'll be questioning not only how people are executed but whether people should be executed," said James R. Acker, a historian of the death penalty and a criminal justice professor at the State University at Albany.
Texas leads the list with five people now set to die here in the Walls Unit, the state's death house, between June 3 and Aug. 20. Virginia is next with four. Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Dakota have also set execution dates.
Some welcome the end of the moratorium.
"We'll start playing a little bit of catch-up," said William R. Hubbarth, a spokesman for Justice for All, a victims rights group based in Houston.
"It's not like we have a cheering section for the death penalty." Mr. Hubbarth said. But, he added: "The capital murderers set to be executed should be executed post-haste. It's not about killing the inmate. It's about imposing the penalty that 12 of his peers have assessed."
More inmates whose appeals have expired are certain to be added to execution rosters soon, including, in all likelihood, Jack Harry Smith, who, at 70, is the oldest of the 360 men and 9 women on Texas' death row (though hardly a row any more, but an entire compound). Mr. Smith has been under a death sentence for 30 years for a robbery killing at a grocery in the Houston area.
"If it's my time to go, it's my time to go," said Mr. Smith, who maintains his innocence and was delivered by guards for a prison interview in a wheelchair.
So far, at least nine others elsewhere, including Antoinette Frank, a former police officer convicted of a murderous robbery rampage in New Orleans, have been given new execution dates, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment research group that puts the latest death row census at 3,263. Dozens more are likely to get execution dates in coming months, but most under death sentences have not exhausted their appeals.
Yet public support for capital punishment may be dwindling. Death sentences have been on the decline, and a poll last year by death penalty opponents found Americans losing confidence in the death penalty.
"There will be more executions than people have the stomach for, at least in many parts of the country," said Stephen B. Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, a leading anti-death-penalty litigation clinic.
Last year, Texas accounted for 26 of the 42 executions nationwide. That includes the last two people executed before the Supreme Court signaled a moratorium on executions while considering whether the chemical formula used for lethal injection in Kentucky inflicted pain amounting to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. The justices ruled 7 to 2 on April 16 that it did not, while allowing for possible future challenges.
But the scheduling of executions comes as prosecutors and juries have been turning away from the death penalty, often in favor of life sentences without parole, now an option in every death-penalty state but New Mexico.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, death sentences nationwide rose from 137 in 1977, peaked at 326 in 1995 and fell steadily to 110 last year.
"We're seeing a huge drop-off," said Mr. Bright, attributing the decline to the time and trouble of imposing death sentences, and a recent wave of exonerations after DNA tests proved wrongful conviction.
Close to 35 people have been cleared in Texas alone, including, just days ago, James L. Woodard, who spent more than 27 years in prison for a 1980 murder he did not commit.
The first inmate now set for execution is William E. Lynd, 53, on Tuesday in Georgia. Mr. Lind was convicted of shooting his girlfriend, Ginger Moore, in the face during an argument in 1988, shooting her again as she clung to life, and a third time, fatally, as she struggled in the trunk of his car. After burying her, he attacked and killed another woman he had stopped on the road.
With two other executions pending but not yet scheduled in Georgia, the state seeks "clearance of the backlog," said Russ Willard, a spokesman for Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker. "We will work our way though the system at a much more rapid pace than we would have."
Virginia - which has executed 98 people since 1976, second only to Texas, with 405 - has the next scheduled execution: May 27, for Kevin Green, 30, for the 1998 slayings of Patricia and Lawrence Vaughn in their convenience store in Dolphin. Three other Virginia inmates also have been given dates in June and July.
Louisiana has set a July 15 execution date for two inmates, including the former police officer, Ms. Frank, 30. She was convicted of killing a fellow officer, Ronald Williams, and two Vietnamese workers, Ha Vu and her brother, Cuong Vong, at their family's restaurant in New Orleans during a robbery in 1995.
But appeals may delay her execution and that of the second inmate Darrell Robinson, convicted of killing four people.
South Dakota, which has recorded only 15 executions since 1889, set a week's window of Oct. 7-13 for the execution of Briley Piper, 25. He pleaded guilty to the torture murder of Chester Allan Pogue, 19, who was forced to drink hydrochloric acid and then stabbed and bludgeoned to death in 2000. One accomplice was executed last year and another is serving life without parole.
The first Texas inmate now re-scheduled for death, on June 3, is Derrick Sonnier, 40, convicted of stalking, stabbing and strangling a young mother, Melody Flowers, and her baby son in Humble, north of Houston, in 1991.
Mr. Sonnier, who turned down a request this week for an interview, had forbidden his trial lawyer from calling family members as mitigating witnesses, costing him a chance for life in prison without parole, said his appellate lawyer, Jani Maselli.
In another of the five latest scheduled Texas executions, a July 22 date was set for Lester Bower, 60, convicted of killing a former police officer and three other men near Sherman in 1983.
Mr. Smith, the oldest death row inmate, lost his Supreme Court appeal in February and said he was resigned to an execution date soon as well.
"I'd hate to go before my time," he said, a gaunt figure seated in a wheelchair and speaking by phone behind glass in the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Tex., where the condemned are housed until the day they are driven to Huntsville to die.
Asked if the prospect of an end to his confinement came as any relief, he said, "In a way it does."
"Death is death," Mr. Smith said. "If they stick a needle in your arm or shoot you in the head, it's cruel and inhuman punishment, taking a human life."
Yet, he said, "a life sentence is a whole lot worse - it's torture."
© 2008 The New York Times