WASHINGTON — The use of the death penalty declined again in 2013, as fewer convicted murderers were condemned to die and most executions took place in just three states — Texas, Florida and Oklahoma, according to a report from the Death Penalty Information Center.
The 39 executions in 2013 represent a slight drop from last year but a steep decline from 98 in 1999.
The number of new death sentences has fallen even further, from a high of 315 in 1996 to 80 in 2013.
The drop-off is especially noteworthy in Texas, the nation's leader in carrying out executions. This year, the Lone Star State saw nine new death sentences, marking the sixth year in a row it has recorded fewer than 10.
Richard Dieter, the report's author, says the drop-off may be explained by a 2005 change in the law that gave juries the choice of sentencing murderers to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Before, jurors had to sentence a murderer to die to be assured he would never go free.
"The numbers [of death sentences] really dropped in Texas after that took place," he said.
In addition, the Texas legal system has been shaken by DNA findings that resulted in condemned prisoners going free, he said, and prosecutors may be more cautious about seeking a death sentence.
The trend is not limited to Texas. Conservative states such as South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia imposed no death sentences in 2013, while Georgia and North Carolina each had one.
California continues to defy the trend by sentencing 24 murderers to death, accounting for about 30% of the nation's total this year. In recent years, Los Angeles and Riverside counties have sent more inmates to death row than any other counties in the nation.
California has a distinct status on the death penalty, Dieter said. "It is usually the state with the most death sentences and the one where they are least likely to be carried out," he said.
On Monday, an Orange County jury recommended a death sentence for a man who was convicted of killing his former girlfriend's father and sister out of revenge and burning their Anaheim Hills home. The death sentence did not count in California's 2013 tally because the defendant, Iftekhar Murtaza, is not scheduled to be formally sentenced until January.
[For the Record, 6:57 a.m. PST Dec. 19: An earlier version of this post said there were 98 executions in 1991. The correct year is 1999.]