Why are American juries imposing fewer death penalties? The New York Times Magazine examined this question in the case of Indiana’s Jeremy Gross, whose proposed death sentence was rejected by jurors in 2000.
Detective work and advances in DNA technology have uncovered a frighteningly high number of wrongfully convicted, especially on death row, The magazine says that there may be another, albeit quieter, revolution taking place in jury rooms. The number of death sentences handed down has dropped from a modern-day peak of 319 in 1996 to 229 in 2000, and then to 155 in 2001. A study last month reported that in 15 of the last 16 federal capital trials, jurors chose life sentences over death.
One factor is the moratium imposed by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan of Illinois in 2000, which received much press attention and made some prosecutors and jurors more cautious. Also, the murder rate has been in a steady decline.
Life without parole increasingly is available to juries as an option; all but three of the 38 death-penalty states now offer it. In polls, three-fourths of Americans say they believe in the death penalty. But when asked whether they’d support capital punishment if life without parole was an option, the number is reduced to half.
Another contributor, tougher to measure, is that an increasing number of defense attorneys have become more skilled and resourceful in persuading jurors that the lives of their clients are worth saving.