Why the death penalty is at historic low in the US

By and large, Americans still support the death penalty. But concerns about the fairness of its application, and even its costs, are playing a role in the steep drop in executions and convictions.

David Tulis/AP
Protesters gather outside the building where Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles members are holding a hearing for death row inmate Troy Davis, in Atlanta in September. Davis is scheduled to die Wednesday for the 1989 slaying of off-duty Savannah, Ga., police officer Mark MacPhail.

Concerns about the racial fairness, costs, and growing numbers of life-without-parole sentences have all played a role in a steep decline in the number of executions and death penalty sentences in the US this year, legal analysts say.

A report released Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization dedicated to pointing out problems with capital punishment in America, shows that the number of death penalty sentences dropped below 100 – to 78 – for the first time since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

The number of actual executions also dropped from 46 last year to 43 this year, with states in the South accounting for 87 percent of those sanctions. The total was down steeply from a high of 98 in 1999.

US polls also show declining support for the idea of capital punishment, with about 61 percent now in favor – the lowest percentage since the early 1970s. Recent executions – including that of Troy Davis, convicted of murdering a police officer and executed in Georgia this summer – have raised new questions the sanction's ultimate fairness, including about the difficulty of proving innocence in a capital case.

Polls showing the growth of support for life-without-parole sentences over the death penalty hint at changing attitudes that have likely had an effect on other high-profile cases. That includes the decision by Pennsylvania prosecutors this month to decline a new capital sentencing hearing for Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. Instead of facing execution, Mr. Abu-Jamal, who has steadfastly declared his innocence, will remain in prison for the rest of his life.

California meanwhile, is in the middle of a debate over abolishing the practice in part because of its cost. The state, which is expected to hold a referendum on the issue next year, has spent $4 billion on its death row system and has executed 13 people since 1978.

In California, housing death row inmates is almost twice as expensive as housing someone in the general prison population, and trial costs can run up to $1 million per case, up to 20 times the cost of a murder trial where prosecutors are not asking for the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

A declining murder rate and growing numbers of life-without-parole sentences for the most violent criminals may be playing more of a role in the death penalty decreases than changes in public sentiment, prosecutors and victims' advocates say.

“I think that the numbers show that the majority of the public still believe that in those rare and outrageous cases that the death penalty is an appropriate sanction,” Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, tells MSNBC. “One of the reasons for that, I believe, is because … the criminal justice system has done a good job at targeting those violent offenders nationwide” and handing out “long and stiff sentences.”

While a number of states – including Illinois, New Mexico, New York, and New Jersey – have abolished the death penalty in recent years, its application and efficacy continue to be hotly debated even in New England, where only one person has been executed since 1960.

The brutal slaying of a Connecticut family led to the death penalty conviction of one of two convicted killers in a case that has led legislators to reconsider a proposed death penalty ban in that state, with many lawmakers now favoring leaving the sanction in place for only the most heinous crimes.

Meanwhile, an attempt in North Carolina to repeal the two-year-old Racial Justice Act, which allows death penalty convicts to argue that their convictions were racially based, failed when Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed the repeal attempt on Wednesday. Prosecutors had argued the law is too broad, allowing nearly all 158 prisoners on the North Carolina death row – both black and white – to file for relief under the law.

A 2010 study by the University of Michigan found that North Carolina murder convicts were 2.6 times more likely to receive a death sentence if one of the victims was white. In defending her veto, Governor Perdue said Wednesday that "it is simply unacceptable for racial prejudice to play a role in the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina."

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