Dec. 16--The number of death row prisoners dropped last year for the first time since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, the Justice Department says. The decline was part of a trend that has seen fewer people sentenced to die in recent years.

The death row population fell from 3,601 in 2000 to 3,581 in 2001, the first year-to-year decrease in 25 years. Last year's total of 155 was the lowest number sentenced to die and put on death row since 1973. It was the third straight year of declines.

The number of death sentences imposed last year compares with 303 in 1998 and 319 in 1996, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported Sunday. Sixty-six people were executed last year, compared with 85 the year before. Through Dec. 11 of this year, 68 people have been executed.

Death penalty experts say juries and prosecutors appear to be exercising greater care in using the death penalty, particularly considering recent cases in which DNA evidence has proved that people were wrongly convicted. More prosecutors also appear to be accepting plea bargains in which a defendant accepts a sentence of life without parole. "There is more selective use of the death penalty going on," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, a capital punishment research group. "The key issue, which is disturbing to people, is that they've seen inmates who may have been close to execution walk off from death row."

The government figures show that 63 men and three women were put to death last year, all by lethal injection. The racial breakdown was 48 whites, 17 blacks and one American Indian.

A death row inmate is most likely to have previous felony convictions, never have been married and have no more than a high school education, the statistics show. Only 10 percent have attended college.

Oklahoma executed the most people in 2001, with 18, followed by 17 put to death in Texas and seven in Missouri. In all, executions were carried out last year by 15 of the 38 states that have a death penalty. The federal government executed two men, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and drug lord and murderer Juan Raul Garza. Preliminary statistics for this year show that Texas conducted 33 of the 68 executions nationwide.

Some other key statistics from the report:

  • The average prison stay for those executed in 2001 was 11 years and 10 months, or about five months longer than the year before.
  • Three states housed 40 percent of all death row inmates at the end of 2001: California, with 603; Texas, 453; and Florida, 372. New Hampshire was the only capital punishment state with no one on death row.
  • The youngest person on death row in 2001 was 19, the oldest 86.
  • More whites than blacks were sentenced to death _ 1,989 whites, 1,538 blacks.
  • There were 51 women on death row, compared with 36 a decade ago.
  • Capital punishment methods are changing, too. By 2001, 36 states had authorized lethal injection as the method of execution, compared with 22 a decade earlier. Since 1977, 584 of the 749 executions, or about 78 percent, have been by injection.

    Alabama is among the most recent converts, switching from the electric chair to injection in May. Anthony Johnson, 46, last week became the first Alabama death row inmate to die by lethal injection. Yet some states still authorize, in certain circumstances, electrocution, use of gas, hanging and--in Idaho, Oklahoma and Utah--death by firing squad.

    Ninety people had their death sentences removed or overturned by the courts in 2001, with Florida leading the way with 11. Of the 90, 46 inmates now are serving life sentences, and most of the others were awaiting new trials or sentencing hearings. Seven inmates had death sentences commuted. Nineteen death row inmates died while awaiting execution.

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