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Number of executions dropping in United States

Juries increasingly looking at other sentencing options

Reuters, July 15, 2003

In the midst of a noisy debate over capital punishment in the United States, a quiet change may have settled in: The number of new death penalty sentences being imposed each year has dropped by nearly 1/2.

Juries are looking more closely, as an alternative, at life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Prosecutors mindful of the cost death penalty trials entail and the minefield of legal challenges that can get them reversed in court may be choosing their cases more carefully.

"The point we're coming to in America is that we are going to keep refining and refining and refining those who are eligible for the death penalty," said Josh Marquis, a death penalty proponent who chairs the Capital Litigation Committee of the National District Attorneys Association.

"It should really be reserved for people like (Oklahoma City bomber) Timothy McVeigh," added Marquis, the prosecutor for Clatsop County in Astoria, Oregon.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, an average of 296 people were added to death row each year from 1994 to 2000. The actual number of new death sentences in 2000 was 226, well below the average, and the beginning of a decline. The number fell to 155 in 2001, the lowest recorded since 1973.

A continuing trend

The bureau says it has not yet compiled statistics for 2002. But Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says his analysis of the total death row population numbers leads him to believe the 2002 figure will again be around 155.

"There is a reluctance by juries," he said. "The states we've heard from say that cases where the death penalty is sought are more likely to get a life sentence now. For one thing, juries are being told about this option."

3 U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 1993 have said jurors must be told that life without the possibility of parole is available as an alternative to the death penalty, if the state involved has such a law on its books, Dieter said.

36 of the 38 states which have death penalty laws also have life no-parole statutes, he said.

"Our sense is that there is also hesitation among juries because of all the stories about innocence or unfair treatment (of those on death row).
For whatever reason they're returning more life sentences," he added.

The American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project said in a recent report that 108 people have been released from death row since 1973 after evidence of their innocence was uncovered.

That problem was painfully obvious in Illinois where investigations found 13 innocent prisoners awaiting execution. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan imposed a still-standing moratorium on executions and before leaving office early this year emptied the state's death row, granting clemency to 167 condemned prisoners and pardoning 4 others who had been convicted of murder.

Ryan's move touched off a renewed debate over capital punishment in the United States, which is alone among western democracies in still carrying it out.

Illinois lawmakers revamped the state's laws but Ryan's successor has yet to decide on the changes. They include such measures as reducing the number of factors that can trigger the death penalty and allowing judges to file dissents when they disagree with a jury's imposition of the death penalty, making it easier for a prisoner to appeal. Dieter says the debate prompted legislative proposals for similar changes or studies in about 17 states. While none has come realistically close to a moratorium on executions, there will probably be studies of reform measures in a dozen more states, he added.

Costs are a factor

Marquis, the Oregon prosecutor, said the cost to the justice system is a factor. While prosecution costs rarely go beyond $10,000, he said, it's not unusual for a defence to cost a half million dollars since "we require not just due process but super due process in capital cases."

"The goal is to seek the death penalty only for the worst of the worst," Marquis said.

U.S. opinion polls have shown support for the death penalty rising in the last few years - except when respondents were offered the option of life sentences without parole. A Gallup poll in May found 74 % of respondents favored the death penalty for murderers but that fell to 53 % if life without parole was available as an alternative.

Given growing support for what Marquis called "true life" - laws that provide no parole options, even Texas - which has executed more in the modern era than any other state - has begun to move toward a life-with-no-parole option, he said.
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