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.
“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.)
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