Greg Milam, US correspondent
A battle of conscience is under way in America after recently released figures showed there had been a dramatic fall in the number of death sentences. Sky’s Greg Milam visited Texas to hear both sides of the argument.
Courts in the United States condemned fewer people to death last year than at any time in the country’s modern history.
It has prompted debate about whether America is falling out of love with the ultimate punishment for criminals.
Only four countries executed more people than the US did last year – China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq – but fewer than 100 new death sentences were handed down, a fact welcomed by campaigners.
Clive Stafford-Smith, the British lawyer who founded the charity Reprieve and has represented hundreds of death row inmates, said: “Finally Americans are seeing through the lie that the death penalty is somehow going to solve the country’s serious crime problems.
“But it is a slow old battle and too many people will die before ultimately the US comes to the inevitable conclusion that the death penalty is a waste of everybody’s time and resources.”
Four states have abolished the death penalty in the last five years and at least two others are considering similar moves.
Factors including cost – it is more expensive to keep prisoners on death row – the prospect of miscarriages of justice and the option of “life without parole” seem to be turning authorities away from the death penalty.
But a member of the US Congress has told Sky News the country is right to retain the death penalty for the most serious of offences.
Trey Gowdy, who sought the death penalty in cases he tried as a prosecutor, said: “When you bludgeon an elderly couple to death with a hammer while they’re asleep in the middle of the night for no reason whatsoever, what is the appropriate punishment?”
Opinion polls suggest that Americans are evenly divided over the rights and wrongs of the death penalty but the numbers are shifting towards abolition.
More than a third of all executions in the US since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 have been carried out in Texas.
The small city of Gatesville is home to five of the state’s eight women-only prisons and consequently locals have more interest than most in the rights and wrongs of the death penalty.
Landscaper David Bullard told Sky News: “I love everybody and I want to be the nicest person in the world, but I also know that if someone kills your children or kills your wife those people need to be dealt with.”
But his wife Alexia disagrees – highlighting how capital punishment remains an issue that divides.
She said: “In the past so many times we have found out that people are innocent who have been on death row for years and years. For us to put somebody to death we are just as bad as they are.”
It is a measure of the level of debate in Texas that even a singer who was the state’s official musician in 2010 now feels able to speak out against the death penalty.
Sara Hickman told Sky News: “It is that slogan, ‘Why do you kill people to show that killing people is wrong?’. It doesn’t serve a purpose, it just causes more pain for more people and it is inhumane.”
Despite the fall in death sentences handed down, more than 3,200 people remain on death row in the United States.