The number of death sentences imposed in the United States -- and the number of executions carried out -- have declined sharply over the last five years, according to a report to be released today by the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that opposes capital punishment.
In addition, a Gallup Poll in May showed that the number of Americans favoring a verdict of life without the possibility of parole over the death penalty has increased in the last seven years.
"By every measure, the death penalty in the U.S. has been in decline since 1999," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based center, citing the public's concerns about innocence as a principal reason.
Five death row inmates have been exonerated so far this year -- two in Louisiana and one each in Illinois, North Carolina and Texas -- for a total of 117 people set free since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment.
Robin M. Maher, director of the American Bar Assn.'s death penalty representation project, agreed that statistics reflect the public's growing skepticism in the reliability of the death penalty and decreased confidence in fairness of the system.
"Juries are more reluctant to impose the death sentence for a variety of reasons, prime among them a parade of wrongfully convicted people leaving death row," she said.
But Charles Hobson, an attorney with the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation -- which favors capital punishment -- said there have been fewer death sentences because the violent crime rate has gone down and people feel safer. He said that budget crises facing many states also may have caused some district attorneys to become more selective about seeking the death penalty.
"It is extremely expensive" to prosecute a capital case, Hobson said.
Death sentences have continued to decline even though the murder rate increased 1.7% last year, according to FBI figures released in October.
In 1999, 282 death sentences were handed down. In 2003, there were 144, the lowest total in 30 years; 2004's total is likely to be smaller still, according to Justice Department projections.
And the number of executions around the country has dropped almost 40% in the last five years. In 1999, there were 98 executions, the most in the modern era of the death penalty. By 2003, that figure had fallen to 65; this year, there have been 59 with no other executions scheduled.
Dieter and other death penalty foes were heartened by the recent Gallup Poll, which showed that though 50% of respondents said they favored capital punishment, 46% said they favored life without possibility of parole if that were presented as an alternative. When Americans were asked the same question in 1997, the gulf was much wider -- with 61% favoring capital punishment and only 29% preferring life without parole.
Among other developments this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center's annual report:
* New York's highest appellate court ruled the death penalty to be unconstitutional. The Legislature has yet to redraft the law.
* In Houston, the police chief said he would support a moratorium on executions from Harris County, where major problems with the crime lab were discovered. The county has generated more death sentences than any other in the state.
* The California Legislature authorized a special commission to study the death penalty.
* Congress passed the Innocence Protection Act, which provides greater legal resources for those facing the death penalty and added protections for those challenging their sentences.
Implementation of the death penalty continues to be concentrated in the South and Southwest, which accounted for 85% of the executions in 2004. Texas again was the national leader, with 23 executions this year.