For the fourth consecutive year, the number of death sentences imposed by juries declined in the U.S., according to a study by the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington organization that opposes capital punishment.
In addition, the number of executions declined, as did the number of states where executions were held.
The report released last week is based on statistics from the Justice Department, state courts and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which tracks capital cases.
The decreasing use of the death penalty is a sign that the nation is taking a more skeptical attitude toward capital punishment, said Richard Dieter, the center’s executive director, although he acknowledged that a majority of Americans still favor capital punishment.
An October 1964 Gallup Poll showed that 64% of Americans favored capital punishment, 6% less than last year. According to Gallup, support peaked at 80% in 1994.
The decline in the number of death sentences over the last decade is stark. In 1994, juries around the country imposed 315 death sentences. Last year, the figure fell to 159. As of the end of September 2003, juries had meted out 104 death sentences, projecting to 139 for the year.
Murders declined sharply in the U.S. in the 1990s, from a peak of 20,273 in 1990 to 12,943 in 2000, according to the Statistical Abstract of the U.S. Since then, they have risen, increasing to 14,054 last year, according to FBI figures. Some analysts have said that although the decreased number of murders contributed to the decline in death sentences, there is no definitive correlation.
Executions declined, as well, though not as dramatically. There have been 65 in 2003, and no others are scheduled the rest of the year. That is six fewer than last year and considerably fewer than the 98 in 1998, the high-water mark for the modern era of capital punishment, which began in 1977 after the Supreme Court permitted states to reinstitute the death penalty if they changed their statutes to guarantee due process.
California, the nation’s most populous state, also has the country’s largest death row with 632 condemned inmates. But California has had 10 executions in the past 25 years and none this year. The disparity is attributable to a variety of factors, experts say, including an active anti-death penalty movement and federal courts that scrutinize death sentences more closely than elsewhere in the country.
The state also has experienced a drop in death sentences in recent years, peaking at 46 in 1992, falling to 21 last year and rising slightly to 23 this year.
Texas had 24 executions this year, nearly twice as many as Oklahoma, which had the second most with 14. In the modern era, Texas has had 313 executions, which represents 38% of the 885 in the country. The next highest state, Virginia, has had 89 since 1977.
Executions have increasingly been concentrated in Southern and Southwestern states. This year, there were executions in only 13 states, and all but three of those were in Southern or Southwestern states. The exceptions were Ohio, with three, and Missouri and Indiana, which each had two.
Dieter said he thought that revelations of significant flaws in the way capital punishment has been administered in this country have contributed to the diminution in death sentences and executions carried out. This year, 10 people who had been sentenced to death were determined to have been wrongfully convicted, as a result of DNA testing or other evidence that was discovered post trial. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there have been 112 wrongful convictions in capital cases in the modern era.
Another dramatic development was the decision in January of then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan to commute the death sentences of all 171 inmates on the state’s death row. That included four pardons that Ryan said were based on innocence. Although the decision precipitated controversy, the Legislature has enacted reforms that were recommended by an advisory committee appointed by Ryan after he declared a moratorium on executions two years ago.
Kent S. Scheidegger, executive director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based group that favors capital punishment, acknowledged that there had been a decline in the number of death sentences. He said another factor in the trend might be that “prosecutors are less prone to seek [death] out of frustration that the sentences are not being carried out.”