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Death sentences, executions take 'historic drop,' report says

Erik S. Lesser / AFP - Getty Images file

A Georgia State Patrol trooper watches over demonstrators calling for Georgia state officials to halt the scheduled execution of Troy Davis on Sept. 21. The protests were unsuccessful.

The number of death sentences imposed in the U.S. has taken an “historic drop” -- about 75 percent -- over the last 15 years, accompanied by a nearly 60 percent decline in the number of executions, a death penalty awareness group reported Thursday.  

The release of the annual report by the Death Penalty Information Center follows recent polls showing a withering of support for capital punishment over controversial cases like that of Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia in September. The decline in the use of the death penalty also has likely been influenced by states’ worsening financial conditions, said Richard Dieter, the center’s executive director.


Capital punishment was imposed in 78 cases this year, down from 315 in 1996 -- the first time that number was below 100 since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the report said. There were also 43 executions -- including that of Davis -- in 13 states, down from 98 in 1999, according to the report.

 

 

Untitled Document
Executions by state
 
State
2011
2010
  Texas
13
17
  Alabama
6
5
  Ohio
5
8
  Georgia
4
2
  Arizona
4
1
  Oklahoma
2
3
  Mississippi
2
3
  Florida
2
1
  Virginia
1
3
  South Carolina
1
0
  Missouri
1
0
  Delaware
1
0
  Idaho
1
0
  Louisiana
0
1
  Utah
0
1
  Washington
0
1
  Total
43
46
msnbc.com

"This is a historic drop in death sentences and I think it’s indicative of deep concerns about the death penalty in the public and it’s mirrored in falling executions, falling support in polls and even in legislation which has abolished the death penalty in a number of states," Dieter said.

Dieter was referring to the abandonment of the death penalty in Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey and New York in recent years. Three other states – California, Connecticut and Maryland – are considering doing away with capital punishment, he said, and Oregon's governor recently declared a moratorium on executions during his tenure.

Dieter said that the legislative action and decline in public support is the result of people being freed from death row because of DNA testing, investigative work by the media and the international outcry over the Davis case, in which seven of the nine eyewitnesses changed their stories.

“I think that shook the confidence that some people had about the death penalty, that it really does risk innocent lives -- even though many are guilty -- there’s still the danger and so juries are returning less death sentences, prosecutors are seeking it less,” he said. “Courts are looking at these cases more closely and governors are sometimes granting clemency, all because of the doubts and disfavor of the death penalty as it has been applied in the past 10 years.”

Texas led the way in executions in 2011 with 13, followed by Alabama at six, Ohio, 5, and Georgia and Arizona each with four. The South and West accounted for 87 percent of the death sentences, while the Midwest and Northeast made up 12 percent. Meanwhile, many death penalty states, such as Indiana, Maryland and South Carolina, did not impose it during the year, the center said.

A Gallup poll released in mid-October showed that 61 percent of Americans approve of capital punishment as a sentence for those convicted of murder -- the lowest level of support since 1972, when the Supreme Court voided state death penalty laws since they were seen as "being infrequently applied in an unpredictable and arbitrary way," the center said. (The court allowed executions to restart in 1976 after some states revised their death penalty statutes to "limit the haphazardness of the death penalty," the center said.)

Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said Wednesday that he “strongly” disagreed that public sentiment against the death penalty was growing.

“I think that the numbers show that the majority of the public still believe that in those rare and outrageous cases that the death penalty is an appropriate sanction,” he said, noting that murders were down about 50 percent nationwide in the last 20 years. “One of the reasons for that, I believe, is because … the criminal justice system has done a good job at targeting those violent offenders nationwide” and handing out “long and stiff sentences.”

“It hasn’t been a revolving door for the last 20 years, they’re out of commission and as such, crime in every category has gone down,” he added.

Burns also noted that the number of life-without-parole sentences imposed began to grow in the late 1990s, which could account for any decrease in death sentences.

“There were a number of states that passed … for lack of a better term, a ‘truth in sentencing’ (law), which said life or life without parole really does mean life without parole,” he said. So in those states, that "could also be a reason as (to) why we are seeing fewer death penalties. Frankly, there are some people that think it’s a more severe penalty to have somebody sit in prison for their entire life than be executed.”

Dollars and cents were another factor contributing to states shuttering their death penalty program, Dieter said. In California, the state’s former prison director and the former prosecutor who penned California's current death penalty statute are pushing to end it, with a citizens’ initiative expected to be on the ballot next year. A recent study there found that the state has spent more than $4 billion on its capital punishment system since 1978, under which there have been 13 executions.

“All of the states are facing the questions of cutting back on schools, libraries, even police forces and so they’re trying to find programs that are expensive and aren’t really serving the public well or aren’t working, and I think the death penalty fits into that category,” Dieter said. “This is not a system that ... makes practical sense and it’s still costly.”

The problems with the death penalty could lead to attempts to fix the system or to abandon it entirely, said Dieter, noting his group is not necessarily opposed to capital punishment, only to what he termed its unfair and inaccurate application in the U.S. As for its future, he noted: “I think we’ll see ... not any one grand move, but probably a continuation in 2012 of declining use of the death penalty.”