Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Number of Executions Falls to 13-Year Low

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 18, 2007; 2:33 PM

The number of executions in the United States hit a 13-year low in 2007, mostly because of a de facto moratorium on the death penalty prompted by challenges to the use of lethal injection, according to a report by an anti-death-penalty information group.

There were 42 executions in 2007, down from 53 last year and the lowest number since 31 people were put to death in 1994, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The most immediate reason is the court challenges across the nation that focus on the constitutionality of the chemical used in lethal injections by all but one of the 36 states that have the death penalty.

There have been no executions since Sept. 25, the day the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge from two Kentucky death row inmates that the procedure is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The report said that more than 40 executions across the country were stayed because of concerns the procedure can be more painful than once thought.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case Jan. 7.

Richard Dieter, the Death Penalty Information Center's executive director, said that while the lethal injection challenges were the immediate cause of the slowdown, "the pattern over the years is broader than that."

For instance, the group estimated at 110 the number of death sentences imposed in 2007, the fewest since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. It is the latest in a series of what Dieter called "historic lows," since the number of death sentences peaked in 1999 at 277.

A reassessment of the efficiency of capital punishment also is underway across the country. This week, New Jersey became the first state to abolish the death penalty in more than 40 years. The eight men on death row saw their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole. There had not been an execution in the state since 1963.

Legislatures in five states, including Maryland, have looked closely at whether they should abandon capital punishment in favor of sentences of life without parole. New York's legislature has failed to reimpose the death penalty after its law was found unconstitutional.

The report showed that the death penalty has become a regional phenomenon. Nearly 9o percent of the executions this year were carried out in the South -- 26 of the 42 in Texas alone. But even some states that are among the leaders in capital punishment, such as Virginia and Florida, had no executions in 2007.

There are now about 3,350 death row inmates across the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center's estimates. The largest number of executions since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 was 98, in 1999.

Kent Scheidegger, a prominent death penalty proponent who is legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the number of death sentences is falling because the number of murders is declining. But he acknowledged that such a proportional decline accounts for only part of the decrease.

Dieter said the slowdown in both executions and death sentences is not a "moral" choice but a "pragmatic analysis of the death penalty" by prosecutors and jurors.

Publicity about exonerations of death row inmates -- there were three in 2007, according to the report -- makes jurors more demanding about evidence, Dieter said. The Supreme Court has limited the application of the death penalty and required more painstaking reviews of capital sentences.

The average appeal of a death sentence takes more than 10 years, Dieter said, "and it's not getting any shorter."

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