WASHINGTON — The United States executed one convict a week in 2009, but the rate is down by half compared to a decade ago, according to an annual report from the Death Penalty Information Center.
The 2009 total is up from 37 executions in 2008, but in that year application of the death penalty was suspended for four months while the Supreme Court considered and ultimately upheld the constitutionality of lethal injections.
The number of executions in 2009 fell 47 percent from a decade ago, and the death penalty was used in just 11 of the 35 states that still allow the practice, the report said.
Texas, where an average of 34 people have been executed each year over the past decade, continued to top the list of states with the most executions, putting 24 people to death in 2009.
It was followed by Alabama, with six executions, Ohio with five and Virginia with three.
The number of death sentences handed down also declined in 2009, the DPIC said, falling to 106, the lowest level since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
In 1994, a record 328 people were sentenced to death across the United States, but that figure has been dropping steadily, with 119 condemned to death in 2007 and 111 in 2008.
"This entire decade has been marked by a declining use of the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, author of the report and DPIC's executive director.
"In the last two years, three states have abolished capital punishment and a growing number of states are asking whether it's worth keeping," Dieter said.
That question has gained increasing significance during the economic downturn in the United States, with many states weighing growing budget deficits against the cost of executing convicts.
This year New Mexico became the 15th state to abolish the death penalty and legislatures in Connecticut, Maryland, Colorado and Montana have all considered doing the same.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson cited the cost of execution, but also the chance of error in supporting the death penalty ban in his state.
"I do not have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime," he said in a March statement.
"If the state is going to undertake this awesome responsibility, the system to impose this ultimate penalty must be perfect and can never be wrong.
"But the reality is the system is not perfect -- far from it. The system is inherently defective. DNA testing has proven that. Innocent people have been put on death row all across the country."
In 2009, nine men who had been sentenced to death were exonerated and freed, the DPIC said. That was the second highest number since 1976.
But perhaps more than the chance of error, the simple cost of executing a convict may be the most immediate reason for US states to ban the death penalty, DPIC said.
California spends an estimated 137 million dollars a year on its death penalty system, while the death penalty costs Florida approximately 51 million dollars a year, around 24 million dollars per execution.
There are currently 3,279 people on death row in the United States, including 690 in California and 403 in Florida.
Worldwide, some 2,390 people were executed in 2008, with nearly three-quarters of the executions in China.