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The Death Penalty Year in Review

If there is ever good news to be found in statistics tracking the death penalty, it is this: The number of death sentences imposed in 2009 was the lowest since 1976, the year the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty with its opinion in Gregg v. Georgia.

The number of death sentences imposed during 2009 was 106, down from 111 the year before, 284 a decade ago, and a high of 328 in 1994, according to a year-end report published today by the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that opposes the death penalty.

The decline in death sentences was particularly apparent in Texas and Virginia, the two leading states in carrying out executions, the report said. During the 1990s, Texas averaged 34 death sentences a year and Virginia averaged six. This year, the report found that Texas had nine death sentences and Virginia just one.

If that is the good news, the bad news is that the number of executions rose this year, from 37 in 2008 to 52 in 2009. The report attributed the rise to a de facto moratorium on executions for four months in 2008 while the Supreme Court considered a case involving lethal injections. Even with the increase, the number of executions this year was 47 percent less than a decade ago.

Other positive notes in the report:

  • Nine men who had been sentenced to death were exonerated and freed in 2009, the second highest number of exonerations since 1976.
  • Eleven states considered legislation to repeal the death penalty -- considerably more than in previous years.
  • New Mexico became the 15th state to end the death penalty with a bill signed into law in March.

Even with fewer being sentenced to death, the number of people still on death row is 3,279. That is only a slight improvement over a decade ago, when the number was 3,625.

"The annual number of death sentences in the U.S. has dropped for seven straight years and is 60 percent less than in the 1990s,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC executive director. "In the last two years, three states have abolished capital punishment and a growing number of states are asking whether it's worth keeping. This entire decade has been marked by a declining use of the death penalty." That, without doubt, is good news.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on December 18, 2009 at 03:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

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