WASHINGTON -- The number of people sentenced to death, and of those executed, declined in 2004 as the US death row population continued to decline, the government reported yesterday. .
Last year, 59 prisoners were executed in a dozen states. The number was six fewer than in 2003, according to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The report also said that 125 people, including five women convicted of murder, were sentenced to death last year. That was the smallest number since 1973.
Last year, 22 death row inmates died of natural causes or committed suicide, while the sentences of an additional 107 were commuted, tossed out, or overturned. As of Dec. 31, there were 3,315 people on death row, compared with 3,378 a year earlier.
Tracy Snell, one of the report's authors, said the number of prisoners facing death sentences has declined for four years.
This is a result of a murder rate now at its lowest level in 40 years.
A death-penalty advocate, Michael Rushford, said the threat of harsh punishment is responsible for that falling rate.
''There are less murders, less murder victims, and less death sentences because, in our view, we have been giving this problem the right medicine," said Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif.
''Most states have effective habitual offender laws," he said. ''These laws take the most likely group of potential capital murderers off the street."
Rushford's public interest law group works ''to strengthen law enforcement's ability to assure that crime does not pay," according to its website.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said jurors are reluctant to recommend the death penalty.
He cited cases in which death row prisoners have been freed following media or legal investigations; the use of DNA evidence to exonerate those wrongly convicted; and the increased availability of life-without-parole sentences.
''The thing that stands out to me is the breadth of the decline," said Dieter, whose group has been critical of how the death penalty is applied. ''I think if it were just one year or one of those numbers, it would be less consequential. What we're witnessing is a pullback from the death penalty across the country."
Today, 37 of the 38 states with death penalty laws allow juries to consider life without parole. That option may have a large effect in Texas, where in 2004, 23 prisoners were executed, or more than three times as many as any other state. A Texas law that took effect Sept. 1 allows juries to consider life without parole.
California had the largest death row, with 637 inmates at the end of 2004. California, Florida, and Texas together account for 44 percent of the US nation's death row population, according to the report.
The report also said:
The 59 inmates executed in 2004 had spent an average of 11 years on death row.
Of those executed, 36 were white, 19 black and three Hispanic, and one was Asian. One inmate was electrocuted; the rest were put to death by lethal injection.
Ten federal prisoners were sentenced to death in 2004, or twice as many as in any year since 1973.
Fifty-two women were on death row, five more than in 2003.
The oldest death row inmate was 89; the youngest was 18.