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Hang-'em-high attitude is still supported by majority

When the audience at last week's Republican presidential debate interrupted the moderator to cheer Texas governor Rick Perry's defence of the death penalty, liberals across America cringed.

But, whether liberals like it or not, Perry's hang-'em-high attitude mirrors the current thinking of most Americans.

The current frontrunner of the pack of Republican presidential wannabes went on to say that, when "heinous" crimes are committed, those convicted should "face the ultimate justice".

Some 234 executions have taken place during Perry's 11 years as the Lone Star state's governor. He has commuted 31 death sentences - but 28 were mandated by a 2005 Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the execution of minors. Perry's tough stance has provoked controversy. In 2004, Cameron Willingham was executed after being convicted of killing his three young daughters in 1991.

Advocates trying to prove Willingham's innocence have accused Perry's office of hampering an official investigation into the soundness of forensic evidence used to convict him.

Aside from a period from 1972 to 1976 when it was suspended by the Supreme Court, capital punishment has been a reality in America since independence.

And, as Perry claimed, Americans overwhelmingly support it. A Gallup poll last November found that supporters of capital punishment outnumbered its foes by a 64% to 29% spread.

And since 1936, supporters have been outnumbering opponents bar 1966, when opponents actually trumped supporters by a 46-42% margin. The zenith was in 1994, when 80% supported it.

Bill and Hilary Clinton support it, too. So does Barack Obama.

But ethical and legal critics of the death penalty say it's fraught with potential problems.

According to the New York-based Innocence Project, which has used DNA testing to help free wrongly convicted prisoners, 25% of the 230 prisoners exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing were in jail for murder. Seventeen had been sentenced to die.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), since the death penalty was again legalised in 1976, 134 people on death row - including 12 in Texas - have either had their convictions overturned, the charges against them dropped, or been pardoned due to new proof of their innocence.

The DPIC says that, since 1976, at least nine men have been executed, in spite of 'strong evidence' that they were wrongly convicted.

In spite of the strong public support, executions have been declining. In the 1990s, an average of 300 people a year were sentenced to death across America. Last year, only 114 were.

Actual executions have also declined. In 1999, 98 prisoners were executed. In 2010, only 46 were put to death.

Even in Rick Perry's Texas, executions are down. This year, only nine have taken place compared to 17 in 2010.

Some of the drop stems from the Supreme Court's juvenile ruling. But the impact of high-profile post-conviction DNA exonerations is also having an effect.

In July, Illinois officially scrapped the death penalty, citing exoneration concerns.

Lastly, in states like Texas, juries are more and more opting to hand out life without possibility of parole instead of death sentences.

Trends towards slowing the use of the executioner's axe clearly won't stop Rick Perry playing the death penalty card to rally hard-right Republicans to his flag during the coming year.

Clearly, Americans aren't yet ready to give their final say on the death penalty's fate.