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US executions, death sentences on decline, report says

By Matthew Barakat
Associated Press / December 11, 2008
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WASHINGTON - New death sentences in the United States were at or near a three-decade low this year and the number of people executed will be the lowest since 1994, according to a new report.

The nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, or DPIC, reports 37 executions in 2008, with no more expected for the remainder of the year. That's down 12 percent from 42 in 2007 and a 30 percent drop from 2006.

The center estimates the total number of death sentences this year at 111. That is on par with the 115 imposed in 2007 that represented a 30-year low. It is more than a 60 percent drop from 1998, reflecting a steady decline over the last decade.

The report from the center, which opposes the death penalty, also indicates that executions in the United States have essentially become a regional phenomenon. All but four of the 37 executions this year occurred in the South and Texas, with Ohio and Oklahoma providing the exceptions. Half of the executions occurred in Texas, where 18 inmates were put to death.

Virginia executed four prisoners. Georgia and South Carolina executed three each; Florida, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Ohio each executed two and Kentucky executed one.

All of the executions in 2008 occurred after April 16, when a US Supreme Court decision on the use of lethal injections ended what had been a de facto moratorium in place for almost seven months. Specialists differed on the moratorium's effect. Richard Dieter, DPIC's executive director, had feared the numbers would spike in 2008 as states rushed to implement executions that had been on hold.

The fact that there wasn't a spike, he said, demonstrates the inherent problems with the death penalty, including the struggle to ensure a fair appeal process on issues like DNA evidence and inadequate counsel.

But Richard Bonnie, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a specialist on capital punishment, said it was expected that it would take some time after the moratorium was lifted for the normal pace of executions to resume, and he does not consider the drop in executions in 2008 to be proof of a long-term decline.

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