An unidentified inmate at Pontiac Correctional Institution in Pontiac, Ill., sits on death row in 2003.
An unidentified inmate at Pontiac Correctional Institution in Pontiac, Ill., sits on death row in 2003. Seth Perlman/AP
Prosecutors sought the death penalty less often in 2009, while judges and juries handed down fewer death sentences, making it the year with the fewest people sent to death row since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Just 106 people were sentenced to death, compared with three times that many in the 1990s, according to a report by the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center.
"There's a sense that, yes, we support [capital punishment] philosophically," says Richard Dieter, the director of the center. "But practically, this is a government program that isn't working."
Dieter points to two main reasons. He says on the one hand, prosecutors have become wary of the often exorbitant price tag. The costs associated with capital cases can reach into the millions of dollars. And that does not include the cost of a drawn-out appeals process, which can sometimes mean waiting two decades before the actual execution.
Growing Awareness Of Exonerations
The public, meanwhile, has become increasingly aware of the growing number of death row exonerations in recent years, which Dieter says has sent doubts into jury rooms. This past year, nine people were found innocent of the crimes they had been sentenced to die for.
"A rule of thumb used to be at least half of the cases you took to trial would get the death penalty," Dieter says. Now, in most states, he says, "it seems to be more like a third of cases that get a conviction go to that death penalty trial and come out with a death sentence."
The trend has been noticeable even in several big recent cases. Brian Nichols murdered four people in his escape from a Georgia courthouse. But a jury last year gave him life without parole. Juries did the same for both Juan Luna and James Degorski, convicted of killing seven employees at Brown's Chicken in Illinois.
Even Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted as a conspirator in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was spared death and sentenced to solitary confinement in federal prison for life without any chance of parole.
Nowhere is this trend more visible, though, than in Texas, which used to lead the nation in capital punishment. In the 1990s, Texas averaged 34 death sentences a year. In 2009, there were only nine.
Just two came from Harris County, the area surrounding Houston, a place once called the death penalty capital of the country.
"We are trying those cases as a 'non-death capital,' " says Maria McAnulty, Harris County's trial bureau chief in the district attorney's office. "We are going to trial in capital murder cases, [but] we are not seeking the death penalty."
Death Versus Life Without Parole
McAnulty says she hasn't seen any perceptible difference from jurors when it comes to their willingness to impose a death sentence. The two capital cases her office brought in 2009 resulted in two death sentences. But, she says, her office is seeking the death penalty less often than it used to, largely because since 2005, the state Legislature gave prosecutors the option of life without parole.
"The option for us from a prosecutor's perspective is if you do not seek death, the result will be life without parole," McAnulty says. "So that very violent person will be confined to a penal institution for the rest of their natural life."
That's true now in every state with the death penalty. Where life in prison once meant 30 years or even as few as 15 years in some states, life without parole now means incarceration until the inmate dies in prison.
The only state bucking the trend is California, which sentenced 29 people to death in 2009 — more than a quarter of the nation's total. That pushed the state's death row population to 697, now the largest in the country. One study found recently that California's decision to pursue death so frequently is costing the state $137 million a year.