If Scott Peterson gets the death penalty, he becomes the highest-profile killer facing execution in the U.S. since Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, says USA Today. A jury’s deliberations over the former fertilizer salesman’s fate, which could begin this week, illustrate America’s ambivalence over capital punishment at a time when the number of death sentences has dropped sharply. Dozens of mistakenly convicted death row prisoners have been freed in recent years. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned executions of the mentally retarded. In June, New York’s highest court threw out the state’s death penalty law. Public approval of capital punishment has slid from 80% in 1994 to 66% a decade later, according to Gallup polls.
The death penalty is applied unevenly around the country. At the extremes are California, where the pace of death-sentence appeals and executions is slow, and Texas, which has put more than three times as many inmates to death as the next closest state since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. While California’s death row is the largest with 643 inmates, it’s modest in relation to the state’s 35.5 million population. Of 11 states with at least 100 condemned inmates, nine including Texas have more per capita than California. Attitudes shape how states apply the death penalty, legal scholars say. “The culture in California takes these cases more seriously,” says Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights, a death penalty opponent. “There’s not the same sort of rush to judgment as in Texas.” Many analysts think Peterson will get life without parole because he doesn’t fit the career-criminal profile typical of California death sentences.