The number of death sentences imposed in the U.S. dropped last year to the lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated 30 years ago, says the Associated Press. That reflects what may be a growing fear that the criminal justice system will make an irreversible mistake. Executions fell to the fewest in a decade. Death sentences fell in 2006 to 114 or fewer, estimates the Death Penalty Information Center. That is down from 128 in 2005, and down sharply from the high of 317 in 1996. A total of 53 executions were carried out in 2006, down from 60 in 2005. Executions over the last three decades peaked at 98 in 1999.
Among many causes given by prosecutors, defense attorneys, and death penalty critics: the passage of more state laws that allow juries to impose life without parole; an overall drop in violent crime; and a reluctance among some authorities to pursue the death penalty because of the high costs of prosecuting a capital case. Above all is the possibility of a mistake. Since the death penalty was reinstated, 123 people have been freed from death row after significant questions were raised about their convictions – 14 of them through DNA testing.