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Executions around the U.S. fall to 14-year low in 2008

Executions and new death sentences continued their nationwide decline in 2008, as states wrestled with legal, moral and financial concerns about capital punishment.

Thirty-seven people were executed in nine states, the lowest total in 14 years and a 62% drop from the 98 death sentences carried out in 1999, according to statistics compiled by the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

A total of 111 death sentences were handed down, the fewest since executions resumed in 1976, according to the center, a repository of reports and research run largely by opponents of capital punishment. The total declined from 115 in 2007 and was barely a third of the numbers condemned some years in the 1990s.

The economic realities of cash-strapped state and local governments have undermined capital punishment where moral and legal arguments have failed, said Richard Dieter, a Catholic University law professor and director of the center.

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“I don’t know that it will change public opinion, but the practical effects of the economy are just that -- if you’re a politician and you have to cut something, do you want fewer police officers on the streets . . . or do you cut one death penalty and save a few million dollars?” Dieter said. “At a time when states are cutting back on teachers, police officers, healthcare, infrastructure and other vital services, citizens are increasingly concerned that the death penalty is not the best use of their limited resources.”

A Gallup poll in October showed 64% support for capital punishment. But even in Texas, where 18 of the 37 executions occurred last year, the number of death sentences has declined by half over the last decade.

In New Mexico, the state high court ruled last year that death penalties couldn’t be pursued unless the Legislature budgeted adequate funding for legal representation of condemned inmates who could not afford their own lawyers. Utah judges also signaled that they would overturn death penalties for convicts inadequately defended.

New Jersey dropped the death penalty in 2007, and a vote expected early this year in Maryland on whether to abolish capital punishment has been driven in part by taxpayers’ sticker shock at reports that each of the five executions there since 1976 cost about $37 million.

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Even in California, home to one in five of the country’s condemned prisoners, prosecutors are wary of seeking death penalties when life without parole accomplishes the objective of keeping killers off the street.

“District attorneys are being more selective in determining to go for the death penalty for a number of reasons, one of which is that it takes so long,” said Scott Thorpe, head of the California District Attorneys Assn. “The delays have an impact on victims’ families and on the overall costs of prosecution.”

San Quentin’s death row, the nation’s most populous, continued to grow last year: The state had 21 new capital judgments, swelling the ranks of condemned prisoners to 667.

Executions were suspended for legal review of the state’s lethal injection procedures and reconstruction of the idled death chamber. The federal district judge’s 2006 order for that review remains tangled in state court procedural challenges.

Nationally, at least 25 scheduled executions were stayed in 2008, four death row inmates were exonerated and another four had their sentences commuted to life. The exoneration and release of the four prisoners -- from Texas, Mississippi and North Carolina -- brought to 130 the number of death row inmates cleared by DNA evidence or investigations undertaken by death penalty opponents like the Innocence Project.

A de facto moratorium on executions was in place nationwide for seven months prior to April 2008, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kentucky’s lethal injection procedures, which had been challenged as cruel and unusual punishment. Although a spate of executions had been expected after the ruling, authorities in several of the 36 states allowing capital punishment, including California, ordered their own reviews of the constitutionality of death-chamber procedures.

The drop in death sentences has occurred despite a fairly constant national murder rate. In 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, the national rate was 5.6 murders per 100,000, compared with 5.7 in 2006 and 5.5 in 2000.

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carol.williams@latimes.com


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