RALEIGH, N.C. (Reuters) - A convicted killer prepared to die on Friday in the 1,000th execution in the United States since the reinstatement of the death penalty after a final bid for clemency failed to bring a reprieve.
Kenneth Lee Boyd, 57, was to be strapped to a gurney at the Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina at 2 a.m. (0700 GMT) and injected with a lethal mix of drugs for the killing in 1988 of his wife and father-in-law in front of two of his children.
Outside the prison, rows of police with batons and plastic handcuffs stood watch over roughly 100 death-penalty opponents gathered on a sidewalk where they held candles and read the names of the 999 convicts who had been executed so far.
Between 16 and 18 of the protesters were detained shortly before midnight and charged with trespass after stepping onto prison property, police said. Witnesses said many in the group had been on their knees in prayer on a prison driveway.
"This was a peaceful demonstration. They just violated the rules," said State Capitol Police chief Scott Hunter.
Boyd's last chance of life ran out less than four hours before his appointment with death when Gov. Mike Easley said he saw no compelling reason to grant clemency.
He ate a last meal of steak, baked potato and salad and met his family for a final time. His lawyer Thomas Maher said Boyd was calm but worried he would be just a statistic.
"His concern is that who he is will get lost in a bizarre coincidence that he's number 1,000," Maher told Reuters.
Boyd, a Vietnam veteran with a history of alcohol abuse, worked in a cotton mill and as a truck driver before he committed the murders following the breakdown of his marriage.
Thirty-eight of the 50 U.S. states and the federal government permit capital punishment and only China, Iran and Vietnam held more executions in 2004 than the United States, according to rights group Amnesty International.
But while the death penalty retains support with a clear majority of Americans, the number of executions has fallen sharply in recent years.
Duke University law professor Jim Coleman, who has headed American Bar Association efforts to impose a moratorium, said Boyd would not be sentenced to death if he were tried today because defense lawyers are better and jurors are more reluctant to impose the ultimate punishment.
"If you were starting from scratch, my guess is nobody would think that the death penalty is a great idea," he said.
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