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Pace of death sentences slows, even in capital punishment strongholds

A prosecutor in Virginia – once among the most active states for capital punishment – has decided against seeking the death penalty for a man charged with abducting and killing a local college student last year.

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    In this Nov. 14, 2014 file photo Jesse Matthew Jr., right, looks toward the gallery while appearing in court in Fairfax, Va. A prosecutor’s decision not to seek a death penalty for Matthew Jr., accused of abducting and killing a University of Virginia student, is emblematic of capital punishment’s decline across the country and in Virginia, the state that once operated one of the busiest execution chambers in the nation.
    Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/AP Photo/File
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Capital punishment continues its decline.

A Virginia prosecutor has opted not to seek the death penalty for a man accused of abducting and killing a local university student, a notable decision in “a state that once operated one of the busiest execution chambers in the nation,” according to The Washington Post.

The event represents a larger movement away from capital punishment, which has seen a steady drop across the states in the last two decades in response to declining rates of violence and a growing reliance on sentences for life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“New death sentences in the US reached their lowest level in 40 years, the start of the death penalty’s modern era,” the Death Penalty Information Center reported at the end of last year. “The number of executions has declined in 11 of the past 15 years.”

Death sentences have declined sharply in the United States since 2000. Bureau of Justice Statistics/Death Penalty Information Center

In Virginia, where Jesse Matthew, Jr. has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Hannah Graham, five people have been executed since 2010, compared to 16 of the previous six years. Virginia has eight people currently on death row, but no executions are scheduled.

Experts attribute the decline in large part to the state-funded capital defender offices, whose staff is devoted to death penalty cases, established in Virginia in 2004.

“In the past, an awful lot of people who ended up on death row had abysmal representation,” Steve Northup, a lawyer and former executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told the Post. “Prosecutors were able to take advantage. Now prosecutors know capital defendants are going to be well represented.”

But Virginia is not alone. In 2014, only three states – Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma – were responsible for 80 percent of all executions in the country. And even in Texas, the number of new death sentences has fallen by more than three-quarters since it peaked at 48 in 1999.

Part of the reason has to do with the decline in violent crime, the LA Times reported: In 2013, murder was down by about 40 percent compared to 1990. Life sentences without the option of parole are also becoming the preferred option among jurors, according to the Times:

In the 1980s and beyond, jurors often said they decided in favor of a death sentence because they feared a murderer who was sentenced to "life in prison" would be released on parole in a decade or two. But since the 1990s, every state has allowed for life terms in prison with no possibility of parole.

Faced with that option, many jurors vote for a life sentence rather than death.

Public opinion has also begun to shift against capital punishment: While majority of Americans still favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, the number is down to 56 percent from 78 percent 20 years ago, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Despite the ongoing shift in perception, capital punishment is far from its final breaths. In the face of a shortage of the drugs needed to make the cocktail used for lethal injections – a shortage that in recent years has led to botched executions – death penalty states such as Tennessee and Utah have reinstated the option to use the electric chair and firing squad as alternate methods of execution.

Still, being sentenced to die has increasingly become a punishment of last resort.

"In years past, you would sometimes see death sentences for simple cases of robbery-murder. You don't see that much any more," Kent Scheidegger, counsel for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, told the LA Times. "When you read of a new death sentence being rendered today, it is typically for a particularly horrific murder, which is exactly how the system is supposed to work."

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