Executions in the U.S. declined to their lowest level in a decade this year, according to a study released Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.
Fifty-three people have been executed this year, with no more scheduled until 2007.
That is down from 60 last year and a significant drop from the peak of 98 executions in 1999, the Washington-based organization said in a year-end report.
Two-thirds of Americans still support capital punishment, the Gallup Poll found this year, but for the first time in two decades, it found that more Americans prefer that the penalty for murder be life without parole rather than death, by 48% to 47%, noted the Death Penalty Information Center.
The attitude is a marked change from last year, when the Gallup Poll reported that 56% of Americans preferred the death penalty compared with 39% who supported life without parole.
This year's developments come amid exonerations of individuals who had been sentenced to death and amid challenges to the lethal-injection process that have led to execution stays in several states, including California, for most of the year.
A ruling is expected soon from U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose on whether California's lethal injection procedure presents an unnecessary risk of inflicting severe pain on condemned inmates and thereby violates the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Similar challenges have delayed executions in Arkansas, Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio and South Dakota and in three federal cases.
Further fuel was added to the lethal-injection controversy this week when an execution in Florida took 30 minutes -- twice as long as usual. Witnesses said the condemned man, Angel Diaz, appeared to be grimacing. Gov. Jeb Bush said an investigation would be conducted.
In addition to the decline in executions, fewer people were sent to death rows by juries, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the organization that released the study.
Dieter estimated that based on the most recent statistics available, the number of capital sentences imposed this year would total 114. That compares with 125 death sentences last year, according to Bureau of Justice statistics, and is a steep decline from the 276 imposed in 1999.
"The American public has turned an important corner in this debate," Dieter said.
"Support for the death penalty is on the decline, and more people are embracing the alternative sentence of life without parole, which is now available in almost every state."
Thirty-seven states permit capital punishment.
"Capital punishment is risky, expensive and could result in irreversible error," Dieter said.
"Fewer people are now willing to put their faith in such a flawed policy."
Less crime may be a factor
Joshua Marquis, vice president of the National District Attorneys Assn., strongly disagreed, attributing the drop in death sentences instead to a recent nationwide reduction in violent crime generally "and murder specifically," as well as to jurors and prosecutors who were "becoming appropriately more discriminating about when to respectively seek and impose a death sentence."
The Gallup Poll found this year that 63% thought an innocent person had been executed in the last five years and 64% thought the death penalty had no deterrent effect.
On the other hand, 60% said they thought the death penalty was administered fairly, and only 21% thought the death penalty was imposed too often.
Death penalty foes said they were heartened by a number of developments this year beyond the decline in death sentences and executions.
New Jersey became the first state to enact a moratorium on executions through legislation, and it joined states including California and North Carolina in forming a commission to study the fairness and reliability of the death penalty. New York legislators declined to reinstate the state's death penalty statute, which had been thrown out by a court.
Dieter also noted that the American Bar Assn. overwhelmingly passed a resolution in August calling for an exemption from the death penalty for the severely mentally ill.
A similar resolution was endorsed earlier by leading mental health groups.
Texas still leads
The number of executions may have decreased nationally, but Texas, the nation's perennial leader, executed five more people this year than in 2005. Texas' 24 executions represented 45% of the national total. Ohio was second, with five.
There are 3,316 inmates on death rows nationwide, with California having by far the most at 655.
California executed one person this year -- the 13th in the state since capital punishment was reinstated, in 1977.
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Death penalty decline
Executions in the U.S. hit a 10-year low this year, with no others scheduled for the remainder of 2006. Texas led all states in executions:
States with executions in 2006
North Carolina: 4
All others: 8*
* Alabama, California, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, South Carolina and Tennessee each had one execution.
Source: Death Penalty Information Center. Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken