Report: US death sentences reach 35-year low

By Mark Sherman/The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — New death sentences in the United States have declined 75 percent from their peak since executions resumed in the 1970s, an anti-capital punishment group reports.

The Death Penalty Information Center said 78 people convicted of murder were sentenced to die so far in 2011, the first time in 35 years there have been fewer than 100 new death sentences.

The option of locking a convicted killer in prison for life without a chance of parole, as well as heightened awareness of the risks of executing the innocent, are driving the decrease, said Richard Dieter, the center’s executive director and author of the report.

In the peak year of 1996, 315 people received death sentences.

The nation also is seeing a sustained drop in executions. The 43 executions in 2011 were roughly half as many as in 2000. Ninety-eight prisoners were put to death in 1998, the busiest year for U.S. death chambers since executions resumed in 1977 following a halt imposed by the Supreme Court.

Texas again led all states by executing 13 people, while 12 other states conducted executions this year: Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia.

Texas’ 477 executions since 1977 are the most, by far.

Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma account for more than half the nation’s 1,277 executions since Gary Gilmore faced a firing squad in Utah on Jan. 17, 1977, the first execution after the resumption.

In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law the elimination of the death penalty. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber stopped a pending execution and declared no one would be executed during his time in office.

California could have a referendum on next year’s ballot to abolish the death penalty. The state hasn’t executed anyone in nearly six years because of problems with its old death chamber and then a shortage of one of the execution drugs. California’s death row of 720 inmates is the largest in the nation. More than 3,200 people were on death rows across the United States when the year began, the report said.

Polls have consistently shown support for capital punishment remains strong, at 60 percent or higher. But some polls also have found Americans prefer life without parole to the finality of a death sentence.