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Now that 2009 is over we can tell you this: Fewer people were sentenced to death in the United States last year than at any time since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Prosecutors brought fewer capital cases and juries handed down fewer death sentences. The number of actual executions has also gone down in recent years. NPR's Laura Sullivan takes a look at some of the reasons why the number of death sentences dropped last year.

LAURA SULLIVAN: One hundred and six people last year. That may sound like a lot, but 15 years ago, judges and juries sent more than three times as many people to death row.

Richard Dieter is director of the Death Penalty Information Center and says the public's opinion about the death penalty is changing.

Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Director, Death Penalty Information Center): There's a sense that, yes, we support it, philosophically, but practically, this is a government program that isn't working.

SULLIVAN: Dieter says prosecutors have become wary of the price tag. Capital cases can reach into the millions, not including the costs of a drawn-out appeals process that can mean waiting sometimes two decades before an actual execution.

The public, meanwhile, has become increasingly aware of the growing number of exonerations in recent years. Dieter believes this has sent doubts into jury rooms. In the past year, nine people were found innocent of the crimes they had been sentenced to die for.

Mr. DIETER: A rule of thumb used to be at least half of the cases that you took to trial would get the death penalty. In a number of states 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.

SULLIVAN: The trend has been noticeable even in several big cases recently. 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.

Nowhere is this more visible, though, than Texas, which used to lead the nation in capital punishment. In the 1990s, Texas averaged 34 death sentences a year. Last year, there were only nine. Just two came from Harris County, the area surrounding Houston, once called the death penalty capital of the country.

Ms. MARIA MCANULTY (Trial bureau chief, Harris County district attorney): We are trying those cases as a non-death capital. We are going to trial in capital murder case. We are not seeking the death penalty.

SULLIVAN: Maria McAnulty is the trial bureau chief for the Harris County district attorney's office. She says she hasn't seen any perceptible difference from jurors. The two capital cases they brought last year resulted in two death sentences. But her office is seeking the death penalty less often than it used to, and that's because since 2005, life without parole is available to them.

Ms. MCANULTY: The option for us, from a prosecutor's perspective, is if you do not seek death, that the result will be life without parole if the jury convicts them of capital murder. And so that very violent person will be confined to a penal institution for the rest of their natural life.

SULLIVAN: 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 death.

The only state bucking the trend is California, which sentenced 29 people to death last year � more than a quarter of the nation's total. It 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.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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