Death Penalty Sentences Drop to Lowest Level in 30 Years

In September, we wrote about a report by the Death Penalty Information Center that found death penalty sentences in the U.S. had fallen for the fourth straight year. (Report here, pdf) Now, the Department of Justice has issued its own statistics, with the same findings. The Justice Department reports finds that death penalty sentences are at the lowest rate in 30 years. The statistics were compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Death penalty opponents say the report shows how wary the public is of executions, heightened by concerns about whether the punishment is administered fairly and publicity about those wrongly convicted.

....Opponents also point to other possible reasons, including continuing fallout from Supreme Court decisions requiring that juries be told that life in prison without parole is an alternative to death.

47 states now offer a lwop (life without parole) option. In 1993 only 3 states provided the option.

Despite the good news of a reduction, there is a long way to go. In 2003, there were 144 persons sentenced to death in 25 states. Currently, there are 3,374 prisoners on death row in the U.S. 65 were executed in 2003. Texas again topped the charts at 24, with Oklahoma and North Carolina on its heels. No other state executed more than three prisoners. 38 states and the federal system still allow the death penalty. When the number gets reduced to zero, that's the time to cheer.

Some more stats from the report:

Since 1977, 885 inmates were executed through 2003 by 32 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Two-thirds of them were in five states: Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri and Florida.

Of death row inmates, 56 percent were white, while 42 percent were black. Hispanics, who can be of any race, accounted for 12 percent of inmates whose ethnicity was known.

States with the largest number of death row inmates were California with 629, Texas with 453 and Florida with 364.

Ten people died while awaiting execution in 2003; six from natural causes and four from suicide.

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