Why is use of the death penalty going down?

Fewer people received a death sentence over the past 12 months than in any year since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. One reason: Some state prosecutors are growing more hesitant to seek a death sentence in cases that might later be upended because of DNA evidence.

By , Staff writer

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    In this May 27, 2008 file photo, the gurney used to restrain condemned prisoners during the lethal injection process is shown in Huntsville, Texas.
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Fewer people received a death sentence over the past 12 months than in any year since 1976 – the year that capital punishment was reinstated in the US.

That finding was released Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). But it doesn’t mean that capital punishment is headed for immediate extinction: The death penalty is included in the laws of 35 states – and in some states, such as California, the number of death sentences has actually risen. Also, surveys show that the capital punishment has the support of most Americans.

But if use of the death penalty is declining overall, why is that?

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One reason: Some state prosecutors are growing more hesitant to seek a death sentence in cases that might later be upended because of DNA evidence. Since DNA entered the courtroom in 1989, 248 criminal convictions have been overturned, 17 of which involved inmates on death row, according to the Innocence Project of Florida.

“What DNA has provided [to the debate] is a recognition that the public is very concerned that the system is accurate,” says Lance Lindsey, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, an anti-death penalty advocacy group in San Francisco. “DNA symbolizes that there’s a desire by the public that we get these sentences right.”

The latest DNA-related case to make national headlines came Thursday, when DNA evidence cleared James Bain, a Florida man, of rape charges. He had been sent to prison for life in 1974. His 35 years behind bars was the most time served by anyone who has been exonerated by DNA in the US.

Some states have struggled with unwanted media attention because of DNA findings. But beyond that, the states have found cases involving DNA to be costly.

If the case is also one involving the death penalty, the costs are almost certain to be high. A DPIC report in October detailed the high expense that states incur from handling capital cases.

Here is one DNA-related cost that some states handle: Some states have passed laws that grant money to former inmates who were found innocent. In Florida, the payment is $50,000 for each year served. That means Bain is set to receive $1.75 million.

Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, which worked to secure Bain’s release, says these cases need to be viewed “as educational experiences for folks who are prosecuting crimes.” It might change how they consider, for example, jailhouse informants and eyewitness testimony. He adds, “We have to use these opportunities to learn why wrongful convictions happen and how to prevent them in the future.”

But even if some prosecutors are being more cautious about seeking the death penalty, in other places use of capital punishment is going up. Death sentences in California have increased 50 percent since 2008, with the majority of sentences taking place in Los Angeles, Riverside, and Orange counties, says Mr. Lindsey of Death Penalty Focus. At 690, California currently has the most inmates sitting on death row, followed by Florida with 403.

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