The death penalty in the U.S. may be on borrowed time, says USA Today. The emotional and financial toll of prosecuting a capital case to its conclusion, along with increased availability of life without parole and court challenges to execution methods, have made executions more elusive than at any time since its reinstatement in 1976. Prosecutors, judges and juries are influenced by capital punishment’s afflictions: racial and ethnic discrimination, geographic disparities, decades spent on death row and glaring mistakes that have exonerated 155 prisoners in the last 42 years. The Supreme Court in June upheld a controversial form of lethal injection by the narrowest of margins, allowing Oklahoma to reschedule three executions. Courts in many states continue to wrestle with that issue. The court has four death penalty cases on the docket this fall challenging the roles of Kansas juries, Florida judges and Georgia prosecutors.
Texas, long home to the nation’s most active execution chamber, sentenced 48 people to death as recently as 1999. So far this year? None. The number of death sentences nationwide dropped from a high of 315 in 1996 to 73 last year, half of them coming in two percent of the nation’s counties. The number of inmates on death row peaked at 3,593 in 2000 but now hovers around 3,000, a 17 percent decline. The number of executions peaked at 98 in 1999 and has dropped since then, hitting a low of 35 last year. In the first eight months of this year, 20 prisoners have been killed, 16 of them in Texas and Missouri.