U.S. Death Sentences Hit 30-Year Low

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Fewer people were sentenced to die this year in the United States than in any of the past 30 years. Juries sentenced 114 people to death row this year. In 1999, they sentenced 283. Death penalty opponents are calling it a turning point.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Fewer people were sentenced to die this year in the United States than at any time over the past 30 years. Death penalty opponents are calling it a turning point.

NPR's Laura Sullivan reports on what may be bringing about the change.

LAURA SULLIVAN: This year, juries sentenced 114 people to death row. In 1999, they sentenced 283.

Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Director, Death Penalty Information Center): I think we're at a historic point with the death penalty in the American public.

SULLIVAN: Richard Dieter is the director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which released the numbers yesterday. He can't hide his optimism.

Mr. DIETER: We have sort of reached a point where the death penalty is going to get a thorough reevaluation. We've even seen many candidates elected to office who oppose the death penalty.

SULLIVAN: The change has been slow coming. But for almost a decade now, in addition to fewer people being sentenced to die, the number of people actually executed has steadily dropped, down to 53 people this year.

Dieter and other death penalty opponents believe the decline has a lot to do with juries.

Mr. DIETER: They are much less willing to impose it. They have doubts about it because of the number of innocence cases. And they are more willing to apply alternatives like life without parole instead of the death penalty.

SULLIVAN: Even just a few years ago, life without parole wasn't an option in most cases. But as of this year, 37 out of the 38 states with capital punishment now also give juries the choice of life without parole.

The only remaining state is New Mexico, which is considering abolishing it altogether. It also hasn't hurt that the crime rate has plunged from the historic highs of the 1990s. And lethal injection has been challenged in many states as unconstitutional.

But it's more than just logistics. Earlier this year, a Gallup poll found that for the first time in two decades, more people supported sentencing a murderer to life without parole than to death. And the poll included people from Texas.

Mr. LEE MCLELLAN(ph) (Harris County D.A.'s Office): We're the death penalty capital of the world. I mean that's what everybody tells us.

SULLIVAN: Lee McLellan is in charge of felony trials at the Harris County district attorney's office. Harris County, which includes Houston, isn't just any county. On a given year, it sentences more people to death than any other in a state that sentences the most people to death in the country.

But even in this state, executions have declined 60 percent over the past 10 years. And in Harris County, Lee McLellan only had four capital cases this year. He used to have at least a dozen.

Mr. MCLELLAN: What's going on? I really haven't got it figured out yet.

SULLIVAN: McLellan says he thinks it's a lack of resources and even perhaps a lack of cases that warrant death. But he says if death penalty opponents want to think this is some kind of change of heart, they're wrong.

Mr. MCLELLAN: I don't see this. I don't see us looking at a case that otherwise in years past I would say we ought to seek death and decide not to. I don't see that change. What I see is not having cases that are as, quote, “egregious,” cases that kind of scream out for the death penalty.

SULLIVAN: That's something both sides can support it. But if that's the reason for the decline, it may not last. The violent crime rate increased for the first time last year and criminologists across the country say this year isn't looking much better.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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