Death penalty on defensive -- even in the South?

In the U.S. we like to think of ourselves as a civilized lot, but visitors to YouTube earlier this week discovered that the descent into barbarism can be quick and steep. Barely 24 hours after Saddam Hussein was hung, the site's page of "most watched videos" was taken over with bootleg footage of the despot dangling from his death rope. As one disgusted commenter said, "You Americans are SICK!"

It's true that the U.S. has always been out of step with the world on the death penalty. Only 74 countries still allow the practice. The most recent to abandon executions was the Philippines, in 2006, following Mexico and Liberia in 2005 and Greece, Turkey, Bhutan, Samoa and Senegal in 2004. (See a full list here.)

That leaves the U.S. as part of a dubious Executioners Club -- along with noted human rights champions China, Saudi Arabia and Iran -- that conduct 94% of the world's state killings.

As the AP notes today, the tide is even turning in the U.S., prompted mostly by growing evidence that innocent people have been, and will be, put to death:

The number of death sentences handed out in the United States dropped in 2006 to the lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated 30 years ago, reflecting what some experts say is a growing fear that the criminal justice system will make a tragic and irreversible mistake.

Executions fell, too, to the fewest in a decade. "The death penalty is on the defensive," said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The AP reports that 114 death sentences were handed out in 2006, down from 128 in 2005, and way down from the 317 given in 1996 during the anti-crime frenzy. Last year's 53 executions was a decrease from 60 in 2005; they peaked at 98 in 1999.

But if the death penalty still has a welcome home, it's in the U.S. South. Lead by Texas and Virginia -- which together have accounted for 477 of the 1,057 U.S. executions carried out since 1976 -- the number of inmates killed rose in the South, from 37 in 2005 to 40 in 2006. All but two of those killings were meted out in Texas, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina.

Yet a McClatchy Newspapers story today suggests that even Texas -- home to what reporter Ken Silverstein once called the "Texas Death Machine" -- is being forced to reconsider:

Texas, where more inmates were executed last year but fewer people were actually sentenced to die, is in the spotlight as lawmakers, judges, even community leaders in Italy are calling for change to the state's ultimate punishment.

As Texas continues to lead the nation in executions, the country's highest court plans to review three state death-penalty cases, and elected leaders may call for reform.

"Texas generally has treated the death penalty as routine," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University." It's finally dawning on the Texas public officials that ... they're way behind the national thinking on the use of death penalty."

Interestingly, the story notes that one of the sources of pressure is international, the result of a seemingly innocuous "sister city" program:

Fort Worth's oldest sister city, Reggio Emilia, Italy, has asked local leaders at least twice to denounce capital punishment. Fort Worth officials refused when the issue first came up in 2001, despite the Italian leaders' threats to sever cultural ties. Reggio Emilia officials repeated the request during a visit last year.

While Reggio officials were in Texas, they visited Death Row inmate Michael Toney, who was convicted for the 1985 Thanksgiving Day bombing in Lake Worth that killed three people.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last year ruled that newly discovered evidence was sufficient to warrant further review of Toney's case.

Maybe the residents of Reggio Emilia, Italy don't want Texas to be like Iran.