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U.S. On Verge Of 1,000th Execution

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"Let's do it."

With those last words, convicted killer Gary Gilmore ushered in the modern era of capital punishment in the United States, an age of busy death chambers that will likely see its 1,000th execution in the coming days.

After a 10-year moratorium, Gilmore in 1977 became the first person to be executed following a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that validated state laws to reform the capital punishment system. Since then, 997 prisoners have been executed, and next week, the 998th, 999th and 1,000th are scheduled to die.

Robin Lovitt, 41, will likely be the one to earn that macabre distinction next Wednesday. He was convicted of fatally stabbing a man with scissors during a 1998 pool hall robbery in Virginia.

Ahead of Lovitt on death row are Eric Nance, scheduled to be executed Monday in Arkansas, and John Hicks, scheduled to be executed Tuesday in Ohio. Both executions appear likely to proceed.

Gilmore was executed before a Utah firing squad, after a record of petty crime, killing of a motel manager and suicide attempts in prison. His life was the basis for Norman Mailer's book "The Executioner's Song" and a TV miniseries.

While his case was well-known, most today could probably not name even one of the more than 3,400 prisoners, including 118 foreign nationals, on death row in the United States. In the last 28 years, the United States has executed on average one person every 10 days.

The focus of the debate on capital punishment was once the question of whether it served as a deterrent to crime. Today, the argument is more on whether the government can be trusted not to execute an innocent person.

Thomas Hill, an attorney for a death row inmate in Ohio who recently won a second stay of execution, thinks the answer is obvious.

"We have a criminal system that makes mistakes. If you accept that proposition, that means you have to be prepared for the inevitability that some are sentenced to death for crimes they didn't commit," said Hill.

But advocates of the death penalty argue that its opponents are elitist liberals who are ignoring the real victims.

"Since 1999 we've had 100,000 innocent people murdered in the U.S., but nobody is planning on commemorating all those people killed," said Michael Paranzino, president of Throw Away the Key, a group that supports the death penalty.

Race is also is a key question in the debate. Since 1976, 58 percent of those executed in the United States were white while 34 percent were black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But non-Latino whites make up 75 percent of the U.S. population, while non-Latino blacks comprise just over 12 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Some supporters say ending the death penalty would be harmful to poor minorities, who are disproportionately murder victims.

"Increasingly violent crime is primarily for the working class folks, poor people and people of color," Paranzino said.