Death sentences dropped dramatically this year, marking the first time in more than three decades that judges and juries sent fewer than 100 people to death row, according to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center.
Just 78 offenders were handed capital sentences, and only 43 inmates were executed — almost half as many as 10 years ago.
Just three months ago, in early September, the Republican presidential debate made headlines when the audience erupted into applause when moderator Brian Williams noted Texas had executed 234 people in recent years.
"I think Americans understand justice," Texas Gov. Rick Perry responded. "I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, are supportive of capital punishment."
That may be the perception, but experts say it's not the reality.
"When I saw the reaction [at] the debate, I thought, 'This is not what I'm seeing about the death penalty around the country,' " says Richard Dieter, executive director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center, which collects statistics on capital punishment. "Everything that I've been following for 20 years says we are in a deep decline."
Dieter says polls consistently show the majority of Americans are ambivalent or opposed to the death penalty.
"The death penalty in 2011 is starting to reflect the unease that many people feel," Dieter says. "The practice has been flawed, and it's getting very expensive."
Dieter points to the millions of dollars that states have spent on capital cases, the frequent exonerations of people on death row, and growing concerns about fairness.
Most notable this year were the multiple protests on behalf of Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia despite appeals that raised questions about his guilt.
Meanwhile, Illinois abolished the death penalty entirely, and just a few weeks ago, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said he would not execute another inmate while he is in office.
"It's time for this state to consider a different approach," Kitzhaber said at a news conference in November. "I refuse to be part of a compromised and inequitable system any longer."
Define 'Life In Prison'
But Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, says it's not that people are turning against the death penalty. It's that people have been given another — perhaps less complicated — option: life without parole.
"Victims and prosecutors and others have unfortunately come to learn that the death sentence really means 25 years of appeals and habeas and more appeals, and the penalty is seldom imposed," Burns says.
Twenty years ago, the choice was often death or "life in prison," which actually meant about 15 to 30 years in prison. In some cases, inmates served even less when let out for good behavior. Now all 50 states — and the federal government — have the option of imposing a sentence of natural life in prison, without any chance of parole.
"When you can tell them this person will never get out of prison again," Burns says, "that's a more appealing alternative."
Burns says there's one other factor to consider: crime rates. This year the murder rate fell to where it was in the 1960s, meaning there are fewer people to charge with capital murder. That's an enormous drop from the 1990s — when the U.S. executed more inmates than in at least half a century.
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