The number of of people sentenced to death and the number executed declined last year, as the nation’s death row population kept shrinking, says a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study reported by the Associated Press. Last year, 12 states executed 59 prisoners, six fewer than in 2003. Death sentences were imposed on 125 people, including five women; that was the lowest number since 1973.
Last year, 22 death row inmates died of natural causes or committed suicide, while an 107 had their sentences commuted, tossed out or overturned. As of Dec. 31, there were 3,315 people on death row, compared with 3,378 a year earlier. Tracy Snell, one of the report’s authors, said the number of death row prisoners has declined four years in a row, the result of a murder rate at its lowest level in 40 years. One death penalty advocate said the threat of harsh punishment is responsible. “There are less murders, less murder victims and less death sentences because, in our view, we have been giving this problem the right medicine,” said Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento. Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., which opposes the death penalty, said jurors increasingly are reluctant to recommend executions.