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US executions drop by 12 percent in 2010

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of executions in the United States dropped 12 percent in 2010, and the number of people sentenced to die is nearing historic lows, a report from an anti-capital punishment group says.

The Death Penalty Information Center attributed the reductions to changing attitudes toward capital punishment, but acknowledged there have also been problems with the availability of chemicals used in lethal injections.

“Whether it’s concerns about the high costs of the death penalty at a time when budgets are being slashed, the risks of executing the innocent, unfairness, or other reasons, the nation continued to move away from the death penalty in 2010,” said Richard Dieter, the center’s executive director and author of the report.

The group counted 46 executions in Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, Utah and Washington in 2010. That’s fewer than in 2009, when there were 52 executions in 16 states.

Tennessee, South Carolina, Indiana and Missouri did not execute anyone in 2010, but did so in 2009.

The center’s 2010 numbers are through December 20. The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics has similar figures, counting 45 executions between January and November 30, 2010. Thirty-five states have the death penalty.

Texas executed the largest number of people by far in 2010, but also showed the biggest drop in inmates put to death. There were 17 executions this year in Texas, compared with 24 in 2009. The 2010 total is the state’s lowest since 2001.

The group’s report attributed the Texas drop to “the state’s adoption of a sentence of life without parole in 2005, changes in the district attorneys in prominent jurisdictions such as Houston and Dallas, and the ongoing residue of past mistakes.”

There have been 12 exonerations of death row inmates in Texas since 1978. Dieter testified at a Texas judge’s hearing on the constitutionality of the death penalty earlier this month.

Nationwide, the drop may be due in part to a reduction in the availability of the chemicals used to kill inmates by lethal injection, the report said.

“Over 40 execution dates were stayed, many because of continuing problems with the process of lethal injections,” the report said. “A nationwide shortage of one of the drugs used in all death penalty states required executions to be postponed or canceled in Arkansas, California, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Kentucky.”

Scott Burns, executive director of the National Association of District Attorneys, offered an alternative theory, saying appeals add so much time between sentence and execution that some families are asking prosecutors to accept life in prison without the possibility of parole just to have some closure on their loved ones’ cases.

“Sometimes that is more palpable to them,” said Burns, whose group does not track the number of executions.

Death penalty supporters also say there are fewer people eligible for the penalty. The Supreme Court has prohibited the execution of mentally disabled offenders and those who were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes.

Prosecutors said lengthy sentences for violent criminals and programs to lower recidivism have contributed to the decline in death sentences.

“Hopefully, the criminal justice system is working,” Burns said.

The Death Penalty Information Center also estimated that there would be 114 new inmates added to Death Row by the end of the year. That’s near last year’s total of 112, which was the fewest number of new death sentences since the penalty was reinstated in 1976.

There were 3,261 inmates on death row on January 1, 2010, compared to 3,297 at the same time in 2009.

California had the largest number of inmates on death row at 697. That state has not executed anyone in five years.

Copyright 2010 Associated Press

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