The number of U.S. convicts imprisoned with death sentences dropped in 2003 to its lowest level in 30 years, helping to provoke the third straight annual decline in the nation’s death row population and signaling the continuation of a slow trend away from state- and federally ordered executions, according to data released yesterday by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. The data stirred activists to speculate that support for the death penalty is dropping among jury panels, which in many states now are the only groups eligible to impose it, reports the Washington Post. Only 144 new inmates incarcerated in 2003 were sentenced to execution, well below an annual average of 297 between 1994 and 2000, the bureau’s report stated.
The number of executions that were carried out also dropped, from 71 in 2002 to 65 in 2003, while the average length of time between death row sentencings and executions continued to grow. More than 40 percent of those on death row are now imprisoned in three states — California, Texas and Florida — while more than two-thirds of the executions were carried out in Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina. Robin M. Maher, director of the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project, said, “The declining figures probably indicate a loss of confidence in the fairness and reliability of the death penalty.” According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 117 death row inmates have been exonerated in the past 30 years, including 21 in Florida and 18 in Illinois.