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Bringing hope to death row

(Reuters)

For Heidi Uetz, writing to an inmate on death row in the United States has been an emotional experience. Her correspondent was executed at the end of September.

Uetz is a member of Lifespark, a Swiss organisation which arranges penpal exchanges with death row prisoners. As Europe holds its first ever Day against The Death Penalty, swissinfo spoke to her to find out more about Lifespark's work.

"Michael Richard was 49 years old. He had been on death row for 20 years, which was unusually long. He had several retrials," explained Uetz.

The appeals mainly focused on whether Richard, originally accused of rape and murder of a nurse, was mentally retarded or not.

Since 2002 the US Supreme Court, the country's highest legal instance, has banned these types of executions. Richard, a borderline case, was eventually deemed mentally sound.

However, this was not the end of the story. The inmate also became embroiled in the latest twist in the capital punishment debate in the United States.

On the same day as Richard's execution, the Supreme Court decided to review lethal injection procedures in another US state, Kentucky, after it was argued that they were a "cruel and unusual punishment" and against the US Constitution.

But the decision came too late. "The absolutely frustrating thing is that the man to be executed two days after Michael got a stay of execution because of this case pending before the Supreme Court," said Uetz.

Emotional experience

The American, who has lived in Switzerland for many years, wrote to Richard for four years. She also visited him in prison in 2004.

"He loved to hear about life on the outside and his world opened up through his penpals because they gave him a view of life he never had," she said, adding that Richard also learned how to read and write in prison.

Giving support to inmates on death row is the mainstay of Lifespark's work. Since it was founded in 1993, the organisation has arranged around 800 different penpal exchanges.

The majority of its 300 members are women, but a number of men are involved as well. For many, the experience has been an eye-opener.

"It's not only that you are giving a lot to the inmate but you also gain very much from it - you find out about a whole new world," said Uetz, who is a member of Lifespark's board.

People write in English, although a few people use Spanish. Writers have to be aware of the responsibility that comes with corresponding with someone on death row. Emotions can run high and there have even been a few marriages, according to Uetz.

Deprived backgrounds

The question of guilt is also a tricky subject. "There are some inmates who claim innocence... in Michael's case he claimed he was, but I just don't know," admits Uetz, adding that the deprived backgrounds of many inmates has to be taken into account, as well as the gun culture in the US.

Lifespark members correspond with penpals in all 38 US states that still advocate capital punishment. There are a higher number in Texas, Florida and California, the states with the most executions.

The US was chosen from the six countries which most actively carry out the death sentence – the others being China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Sudan – for ease of access and language reasons.

However, the organisation also campaigns against the death penalty worldwide, often collaborating with similar groups worldwide.

"There are 130 countries now that have either abandoned, abolished or are not using the death penalty - that's pretty good, but there are still these six nations which are responsible for over 90 per cent of executions," said Uetz.

The European Day Against The Death Penalty is a step in the right direction, she adds, even if such actions are largely symbolic.

"Whatever happens, if many groups of nations or individual nations officially make a statement against the death penalty this can only be positive."

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

European Day Against The Death Penalty

The Council of Europe, Europe's human rights watchdog, has declared October 10 European Day Against The Death Penalty. This comes on the same day as World Day Against The Death Penalty.

There has been no capital punishment among Council of Europe and European Union members since 1997. Abolition of the death penalty is a condition of membership of both bodies.

Switzerland has been a Council member since 1963, but is not a member of the EU.

More than 70 countries worldwide still retain the death penalty. According to the EU, in 2006 1,591 people were executed in 25 countries and at least 3,861 people were sentenced to death in 55 countries.

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Death penalty in the US

The death penalty is legal in 38 states in the US, although not all of them use it.

There are currently around 3,350 people on death row. California, Texas and Florida have the highest numbers.

At least 41 people this year and 1,099 people have been executed since the US Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

It says that since 1973, more than 120 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.

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