WASHINGTON – The number of people sentenced to death last year fell to the lowest level since the Supreme Court reinstated the penalty in 1976.
There were 125 people sent to death row in 2004, down from 144 the previous year and the sixth consecutive annual decline, according to figures by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In 1998, 300 people received death sentences.
Miriam Gohara, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said one major cause for the decline is high profile exonerations based on DNA evidence. She said that jurors are less willing to impose the penalty when they see that the system occasionally fails.
“I think people are more concerned about the irreversibility of the death penalty. Once somebody is executed, you can’t bring them back,” Gohara said.
The high court has issued decisions narrowing the death penalty, halting the execution of juveniles, the insane and the mentally retarded.
There also are more jurisdictions where jurors are given options other than death, said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center.
“Juries are being given a choice of life without parole that they didn’t have in the early ‘90s,” he said.
In President Bush’s State of the Union address this year, he called for more training for lawyers representing accused killers, tacit recognition that not all suspects receive adequate defense.
As governor of Texas, a state that executes more inmates than any other, Bush commuted one death sentence and allowed 152 executions. Texas sent the most people to death row last year – 23 – followed by California, which sent 11, and Florida and Alabama, which each sent 8.
There were 3,374 prisoners awaiting execution at the end of 2003, the latest year figures are available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That was 188 fewer than the previous year, due largely to then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan granting clemency to all 167 inmates on his state’s death row because of concerns about wrongful convictions.