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The number of executions and death sentences nationwide continues a steady decline, matching dwindling public support for capital punishment in general, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s annual report.
Only seventy-eight people were sentenced to death this year, the first time that number dropped below 100 since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Death sentences last year were at 112, and have declined by nearly 75% from fifteen years ago, when more than 300 people were condemned.
A report showed forty-three people were executed in 2011, down three from last year and a 56% decline from twelve years ago.
A CNN/Opinion Research Poll in October found more Americans for the first time favor a sentence of life in prison over the death penalty for murderers, 50% to 48%. CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said his analysis shows a difference between thinking the government should have the death penalty as an option and actually wanting to see it applied.
The decline in the number who prefer the death penalty as the punishment for murder may be related to the growing number who believe that at least one person in the past five years has been executed for a crime that he or she did not commit. In 2005, when a solid majority preferred the death penalty, 59% believed that an innocent person had been executed within the previous five years. Now that figure has risen to 72%.
The year’s highest profile execution dealt with questions of innocence. Troy Davis was given a lethal injection in September, ending a battle for the man convicted of killing a Georgia officer. He drew widespread support for his claims an innocent man was being put to death, after federal and state courts had rejected his calls for a new trial. Since Davis’ conviction in 1991, seven of the nine witnesses against him had recanted their testimony, and no physical evidence was presented linking Davis to the killing of the officer.
A Texas execution also attracted international attention. Mexican national Humberto Leal Garcia was convicted of killing a sixteen-year-old girl. A world court found Texas violated his rights by not giving Mr. Leal access to Mexico’s consulate upon his arrest, as required by an intentional treaty. U.S. and Mexican officials, along with a variety of human rights groups, urged Texas to delay the execution, but to no avail.
Texas continues to lead the nation as the busiest death penalty state, with thirteen executions this year. Alabama was next with six, and Ohio with five.
Thirty-four states have capital laws; thirteen states carried out the punishment in 2011. Several states with capital punishment laws failed to sentence anyone to death in 2011.
Illinois this year became the fourth state in four years to get rid of the death penalty, while Oregon’s Democratic governor said no executions would occur while he is in office.
California voters could decide next year whether to abandon the practice. That state has the highest death row population, but no one has been executed there since 2006.
Connecticut and New Hampshire are the only New England states with the death penalty, but only one person has been executed in the region since 1960.