Thirty-one prisoners were executed in 13 states. Three states carried out their first executions in more than 30 years. More than 2,870 prisoners were under sentence of death in 35 states. Political activists in San Francisco were repeatedly arrested. There were reports of deaths in police custody in disputed circumstances and allegations of torture and ill-treatment by police and prison officers. Thousands of Cuban and Haitian asylum-seekers were held at a US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The use of the death penalty under federal civilian law was extended to cover some 60 new crimes. These included the murder of federal officials and certain non-homicidal offences such as treason, espionage and major drug-trafficking. President Bill Clinton supported the passage of the Crime Bill and signed the legislation on 13 September. This move clearly conflicted with Article 4(2) of the American Convention on Human Rights, which the USA has signed but not ratified.

Kansas reinstated the death penalty in April, becoming the 37th state to authorize its use. The governor of Kansas, who personally opposed the death penalty, allowed the reinstatement bill to become law without her signature.

In October the USA ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The same month the Senate gave its consent to ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The death penalty continued to be used extensively. Thirty-one prisoners were executed, bringing the total number of executions since 1977 to 257. Three states – Idaho, Maryland and Nebraska – each carried out an execution for the first time in more than 30 years. Texas carried out 14 executions. Executions were also carried out in Arkansas (five), in Virginia (two) and in Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina and Washington (one each).

William Hance, a black man who was borderline mentally retarded, was executed in Georgia on 31 March. He had been tried in Columbus, Georgia (Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit), where there is strong evidence of racial discrimination in the application of the death penalty (see Amnesty International Report 1991). The jury contained only one black member; all other black prospective jurors were excluded by the prosecutor (Columbus' population is 34 per cent black). Shortly before the execution, two jurors stated in affidavits that deliberations at William Hance's 1984 resentencing trial had been marked by misinformation, misconduct and racial bias. The one black juror on the panel swore that she had not voted for the death penalty on account of William Hance's mental condition, but that she had been ignored and a unanimous verdict announced. Another juror corroborated this account and described racially derogatory remarks made during the jury deliberations. The Georgia Board of Pardons refused to grant clemency despite appeals for mercy from the family of the murder victim.

Harold Lamont "Wili" Otey was executed in Nebraska on 2 September; this was the first execution in the state for 35 years. Wili Otey, a black man, was convicted of the 1977 rape and murder of a white woman. In June 1991 the Nebraska Board of Pardons denied clemency by two votes to one. His attorneys argued that the clemency hearing had been unfair because the Attorney General, who prosecuted the case and sought to expedite the execution, was a member of the Pardons Board. Grounds for clemency included the fact that Wili Otey had no prior criminal record; his rehabilitation in prison; and other mitigating factors.

Members of Food Not Bombs (FNB), a group distributing free food and information to homeless people in San Francisco, were repeatedly arrested. One member was convicted in February 1994 of violating a court injunction forbidding FNB from distributing food in public places without a permit. The group had been unable to obtain such a permit since 1990 when the authorities stopped issuing them. The group's leader, arrested more than 90 times since 1988, faced prosecution at the end of the year on various charges including assault. The alleged victims and witnesses were employees of City Hall, several of whom had openly opposed the activities of FNB. Some of those arrested reported that they were ill-treated by police.

There were reports of deaths in police custody in disputed circumstances and allegations of torture and ill-treatment by police and prison officers. Ernest Sayon, a black man, died during his arrest on Staten Island on 29 April. His death was classified as a homicide caused by asphyxia by compression of chest and neck while his wrists were handcuffed behind his back. Witnesses alleged that Ernest Sayon was beaten by the arresting officers and placed in a choke-hold. A grand jury investigating the case voted in December not to file criminal charges against the three officers involved.

A grand jury investigating the May 1993 death in police custody of Johnny Cromartie, a black man, voted in March not to indict any of the officers involved, on the ground that the use of force to subdue him during an escape attempt had been justified. Johnny Cromartie's death from heart failure was found to have been caused by several factors including stress caused by blows by the police officers and the difficulty he had breathing while lying face down with his wrists manacled behind him (see Amnesty International Report 1994).

Felipe Soltero, aged 17, of Latin American origin, was shown on a video tape being beaten by a black police officer in Los Angeles County, California, on 29 July. The police officer struck the teenager four times on the head and face with a metal baton, and continued to beat him as he lay on the ground. Felipe Soltero reportedly sustained severe bruising. The officer was suspended and a grand jury began hearing evidence in the case in August.

On 30 September Timothy Prince Pride was fatally shot in the back by a prison guard in San Quentin prison, California, reportedly after being involved in a minor altercation with another prisoner. According to a statement by the prison authorities, rubber bullets were fired as a warning to break up a fight between Timothy Pride and the other prisoner. However, a guard using live ammunition reportedly opened fire at the same time in what appeared to be an excessive use of lethal force.

A Los Angeles jury failed to reach a verdict in the trial in September of a police officer charged with second-degree murder for the killing of John Daniels Jr (see Amnesty International Reports 1993 and 1994). A new trial was ordered.

The Knox County Sheriff's Department, Tennessee, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) initiated inquiries after a newspaper report published in July alleged that during 1993 inmates in Knox County jail had been handcuffed spread-eagled to bars for periods of an hour or more. The newspaper also claimed other inmates were punished by being placed in a special restraining chair and forced to wear a helmet with the visor blacked out, which was then struck by prison guards using fists, flashlights and other objects.

Prisoners in Oklahoma State Penitentiary's H-Unit, a super-maximum security unit which opened in November 1991, were kept for between 23 and 24 hours per day in underground, concrete, windowless cells with virtually no natural light or fresh air. H-Unit houses nearly 400 inmates, including all male prisoners under sentence of death in the state. The American Correctional Association, a private agency that administers national accreditation for US and Canadian prisons, delayed reaccrediting the penitentiary after receiving a highly critical report on H-Unit by Amnesty International which concluded that conditions constituted "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" (see below).

Judgment was still pending at the end of the year in a civil suit brought in 1993 on behalf of inmates of Pelican Bay Prison, a maximum security prison in California (see Amnesty International Reports 1993 and 1994).

Haitian boat people held by the US Government in camps at the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, were encouraged to return to Haiti, often without being given adequate information about the unstable situation prevailing there. A substantial number of the approximately 32,000 Cuban asylum-seekers held by the US authorities in camps at Guantánamo Bay and in Panama during the year were believed to have fled the risk of human rights violations in Cuba.

Amnesty International made numerous appeals on behalf of prisoners sentenced to death, urging clemency in all cases.

In an open letter to President Clinton in January, Amnesty International called on the federal government to set up a Presidential Commission into the use of the death penalty, and to introduce a moratorium on all executions until the Commission reports its findings. The letter showed that death sentences in the USA are imposed disproportionately on the poor, on members of ethnic minorities, on the mentally ill or retarded, and on those without adequate legal counsel. This, the organization said, was a matter for the US federal authorities to investigate and remedy with the utmost urgency. Eleven areas of particular concern were cited, including the execution of juvenile offenders and the mentally impaired. No substantive response had been received from the US Government by the end of the year.

Amnesty International remained concerned that Gary Tyler, in prison in Louisiana for murder, was denied a fair trial in 1975 and that racial prejudice played a major part in his prosecution. It wrote to the Board of Pardons and Louisiana's governor in December, urging that he be pardoned (see Amnesty International Reports 1990 to 1992).

Amnesty International wrote to the authorities in San Francisco in October to request further information on the charges against the FNB leader and some 20 others. It expressed concern that the group had reportedly been subjected to a pattern of harassment, arrest and ill-treatment by police over a six-year period and that members may have been targeted on account of peaceful beliefs and political activities.

In May Amnesty International wrote to the New York City Police Commissioner regarding deaths and ill-treatment of suspects in custody. The organization was disturbed at the deaths of several suspects, including Ernest Sayon, in recent years after they were placed face-down in restraints, which can inhibit respiratory movement. Amnesty International also remained concerned at the use of lethal force in the case of Johnny Cromartie, who was unarmed, epileptic and in need of medical attention.

Amnesty International wrote to the authorities in Tennessee in October regarding allegations of ill-treatment of inmates in the Knox County jail. It wrote to the authorities in Arizona, California, Florida, Maryland and Ohio about other allegations of deaths and ill-treatment in custody. Cases included Felipe Soltero in Los Angeles, California; Timothy Pride in San Quentin prison, California; three people who were shot dead by the Los Angeles Police in 1992 and 1993; and Michael Bryant who died in March 1993 in Los Angeles, California, after being "hog-tied" by police (see Amnesty International Report 1994). The Los Angeles Police Department told Amnesty International in September that Michael Bryant's death had been thoroughly investigated and that "no fault" was found in the officers' actions, but that new procedures had since been introduced to restrain suspects. In November the California Department of Corrections told Amnesty International that an investigation was being conducted into the shooting of Timothy Pride.

In March an Amnesty International delegation visited H-Unit at Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Amnesty International's report, published in June, concluded that the conditions constituted "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment in violation of international standards. It urged the Oklahoma prison authorities to act on the organization's findings and recommendations. Some conditions, including lack of access to natural light and fresh air, violated the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Amnesty International also raised concerns regarding H-Unit's failure to meet American Correctional Association standards for prisons including adequate cell furnishings and unencumbered cell space for two occupants.

In September an Amnesty International delegation visited the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to investigate the situation of Cuban and Haitian asylum-seekers held there after being intercepted at sea by the US authorities. Amnesty International questioned the repatriation process to which Haitian asylum-seekers were subjected and expressed concern that some were volunteering to return to Haiti without being given adequate information about the unstable situation in the country. The organization believed that a substantial number of Cubans held in camps at Guantánamo Bay and Panama, who were not permitted to request asylum in the USA, could be at risk of human rights violations if required to return to Cuba. It urged that they be given the opportunity to present asylum applications in accordance with internationally accepted procedures.

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