December 18, 2009 / 5:11 AM / 10 years ago

U.S. death sentences at three-decade low

DALLAS (Reuters) - U.S. courts will hand down fewer death sentences in 2009 than any year since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, according to a report released on Friday by the Death Penalty Information Centre.

The death chamber at California's San Quentin State Prison, 18 miles (29 km) north of San Francisco, California is shown in this undated file photograph. REUTERS/California Department of Corrections/Handout

The number of U.S. convicts put to death in 2009 rose from 2008, a trend attributable to a seven-month moratorium on executions that was lifted in April of last year.

Still, the report said, U.S. death sentences and executions were on a downward slope as states grapple with the high costs of the process while the awful prospect of putting an innocent person to death weighs on the minds of juries.

The number of death sentences in 2009 looks set at 106, down from 111 in 2008 and 119 in 2007. In 1999 there were 284.

Pointedly, the report noted that the decrease in death sentences has been especially pronounced in Texas and Virginia, the two states that lead the United States in executions.

“During the 1990s, Texas averaged 34 death sentences per year and Virginia averaged six. This year, Texas had nine death sentences and Virginia one,” it said. Of the 1,189 executions in America since 1976, 447 have been carried out in Texas.

Report author Richard Dieter said the falling number of executions and death sentences could not be explained by, for instance, a corresponding drop in the murder rate.

“The murder rate in the country has hardly changed at all since 2000 yet the number of death sentences, executions, the size of death row and the number of states with the death penalty have all declined over the past decade,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

RECESSION PUTS FOCUS ON COST

Costs — which have become more of an issue during this recession — and growing concerns about wrongful convictions seem to be the main factors behind the trend, he said.

The report said California was spending $137 million (84.5 million pounds) a year on a death penalty system that its own state commission had called “broken.” One study found that Maryland had spent $186 million over a 20-year period, amounting to a staggering $37 million per execution.

The high price tag stems from trial costs which often rise when the death penalty is sought, the lengthy appeals process, and the additional expenses of death row facilities.

New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, becoming the 15th U.S. state to not practice it, partly due to expense.

In 2009, nine men who had been convicted and sentenced to die were exonerated and freed — tied for the second-highest number in any year since 1976 — underscoring worries about innocent people being put to death.

No U.S. court has ruled that a single execution carried out since 1976 was based on a wrongful conviction, but anti-death-penalty activists have raised questions about several, most prominently the Texas case of Cameron Todd Willingham.

He was put to death in 2004 for the murder of his three young children in a house fire.

But leading forensic experts have declared that poor science was used to determine arson in the case. The official investigation has been postponed indefinitely by Texas Governor Rick Perry who was governor when Willingham was executed.

Executions in 2009 total 52 with no more scheduled, up from 37 in 2008 mainly because of the moratorium lifted in April last year but well down from 98 in 1999.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Eric Walsh

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