Juries imposed far fewer death sentences in each of the last four years than they did on average over the previous decade, according to a new report. The Death Penalty Information Center, which is to release the report tomorrow, attributes the decline largely to growing public awareness of death-row exonerations and concerns that innocent people might be sentenced to die, reports the New York Times. In the 1990’s, an average of 290 people were sentenced to death each year. For the last four years, the average has been 174.
In 2003, there were 143 death sentences issued, the fewest since 1977, the year after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. “This is the single most interesting fact about the death penalty in the United States in the last two or three decades,” said James S. Liebman, a law professor at Columbia and an expert on capital punishment. The report’s thesis that exonerations play a major role in the decline, as well as its data on the number of people exonerated, are the subject of debate. The report says that 116 innocent people have been released from death row since 1973, after serving an average of nine years each. Prosecutors said 20 to 30 is more accurate.