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42 executions in ’07 are 13-year low in U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Forty-two people were executed in the U.S. this year -- the lowest number since 1994 and fewer than half as many as there were in 1999, when the total was 98 -- the highest number in the modern era of the death penalty.

There have been no executions since Sept. 25, as more than a dozen death row inmates received stays of execution after the Supreme Court decided to hear a January challenge to lethal injection, the dominant mode of execution in the nation.

In addition, with less than two weeks remaining in 2007, projections show that there will have been 110 death sentences handed down this year, 4% fewer than in 2006 and 60% fewer than in the peak year of 1999, when there were 276, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The center’s year-end report praised New Jersey’s decision to abolish capital punishment. In addition, it hailed several other developments, including the exoneration of three men who had faced death sentences.

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“2007 will be known as the year executions came to a temporary halt, and as the year of concrete legislative action reconsidering the death penalty,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the center, which opposes capital punishment.

The report also emphasized that only 10 states held executions this year and that 26 of them occurred in one state -- Texas. Along the same line, 86% of the executions occurred in Southern or Southwestern states. A number of states with large death row populations -- California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Nevada -- had no executions.

The freeing of inmates Curtis McCarty in Oklahoma, Michael McCormick in Tennessee and Jonathon Hoffman in North Carolina brought to 126 the number of wrongfully convicted individuals who have been released from death rows in the last 20 years.

This year governors in three states, including Texas, commuted the sentences of three death row inmates to life without parole. Last year, there were no commutations.

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In a recent poll conducted for the center, 60% of Americans said wrongful convictions had either lessened their support for the death penalty or strengthened their already-existing opposition.

Nonetheless, according to a Gallup Poll conducted in October, 69% of Americans still favor capital punishment, up 4 percentage points from last year. Support for the death penalty peaked at 80% in 1994, according to Gallup, and has been in the 65% to 70% range in recent years. In May 2006, for the first time, a slim majority (48% to 47%) of Americans said they preferred that the penalty for murder be life without the possibility of parole rather than death. Gallup did not ask that question in this year’s poll.

Litigation over lethal injection clearly had a significant effect on the death penalty landscape this year. More than 40 people received stays of execution because of lethal injection challenges this year, the center said.

Although the center was pleased with this development, Dieter acknowledged that once the Supreme Court ruled on the pending challenge to Kentucky’s lethal injection law, there could be an increase in executions next year. That case, Baze vs. Rees, is set for oral arguments Jan. 7.

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“At some point, these cases will start to move through the system again,” said Jim Marcus, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law, who has represented a number of death row inmates. He recalled that at one point in the mid-1990s, Texas had only three executions as courts there sorted out a new habeas corpus law. Within a year, the number of executions rose to 40, the most of any year since the Supreme Court permitted states to reinstate capital punishment in 1976 after a four-year hiatus.

Marcus said that but for stays granted because of lethal injection challenges, there would have been “at least three more executions in Texas this year,” and he expressed concern that 2008 “could be a record-setting year in Texas” depending on the Supreme Court ruling.

Death penalty supporters, including attorney Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, emphasized that the high court was not considering the constitutionality of the death penalty. Rather, the court is considering whether the way Kentucky conducts its lethal injection executions violates the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Depending on how the court decides the case, there could be a considerable amount of spinoff litigation in states around the country over whether their methods passed constitutional muster.

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Josh Marquis, the chief prosecutor in Astoria, Ore., and a frequent spokesman for the National District Attorneys Assn., said he did not dispute that the number of death sentences and executions had dropped.

But he said the decline in death sentences was attributable to three factors: decreasing murder rates; prosecutors asking for the ultimate punishment less frequently; and jurors imposing the penalty less often, particularly now that they had the option in every state of giving life without the possibility of parole.

henry.weinstein@latimes.com


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