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For the first time in more than three decades, juries and judges sent fewer than a hundred people to death row. That's a dramatic drop in death sentences. Those figures for this year come from a new report out this morning from the Death Penalty Information Center. They suggest that how Americans think about capital punishment is changing. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Remember the Republican debate in September when moderator Brian Williams turned to Texas Governor Rick Perry.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: So, Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you...

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SULLIVAN: Just the question got the loudest applause of the night.

WILLIAMS: What do you make of...

SULLIVAN: Brian Williams asked him why that was.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, are supportive of capital punishment.

SULLIVAN: That may be the perception, but it may not be the reality.

RICHARD DIETER: When I saw the reaction, the debate, I said, this is not what I'm seeing about the death penalty around the country. Everything I've been following for 20 years has been that we are in a deep decline.

SULLIVAN: Richard Dieter directs the Death Penalty Information Center. Its new report shows only 78 offenders were sent to death row this year. And only 43 people were executed, compared to almost twice as many 10 years ago.

DIETER: The death penalty in 2011 is starting to reflect the unease that many people feel - at least the ambivalence. Sure a lot of people still support the death penalty. But the practice has been flawed and it's getting very expensive.

SULLIVAN: Dieter points to the millions spent on capitol cases, the frequent exonerations of people on death row, concerns about fairness. Many people protested this year when inmate Troy Davis was executed in Georgia despite appeals that raised questions about his guilt.

Meanwhile, Illinois abolished the death penalty entirely. And just a few weeks ago there was this from Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber.

GOVERNOR JOHN KITZHABER: It's time for this state to consider a different approach. I refuse to be part of a compromised and inequitable system any longer.

SULLIVAN: Kitzhaber says he won't execute another inmate while he's in office. But Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, says people aren't turning against the death penalty. They're turned toward another, perhaps less complicated, option - life without parole.

SCOTT BURNS: Victims and prosecutors and others, unfortunately, have come to learn that the death sentence really means 25 years of appeals and habeas and more appeals, and the penalty is seldom imposed.

SULLIVAN: Twenty years ago, life in prison actually meant 15 to 30 years in prison. All 50 states and the federal government now have the option of imposing a sentence of life in prison until you're dead, without any chance of parole.

BURNS: When you can tell them this person will never get out of prison again, that's a more appealing alternative.

SULLIVAN: Burns says there's one other factor to consider - crime rates. This year, the murder rate fell to where it was in the 1960s. There are simply fewer people to charge with capital murder. It's an enormous drop from the 1990s. In those years, the U.S. executed more inmates than it had in at least half a century.

Laura Sullivan. NPR News. Washington.

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