By Chantal Valery (AFP) – Dec 18, 2012
WASHINGTON — Most US states have now abandoned the death penalty in law or in practice, and the number of American convicts sentenced to execution each year is falling steadily, according to a new report.
While 33 of the 50 states still have capital punishment on the books, only nine actually carried out an execution in 2012, and three quarters of the total number of executions were in four states in the South.
According to an end-of-year survey by the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit educational group, this reflects a long-term trend that has seen the death penalty fall into disuse across most of the country.
"Fewer states have carried out executions in 2012. The death penalty is becoming more isolated, more concentrated in a few states," DPIC director Richard Dieter told AFP, in an interview to present the report.
The overall violent crime rate in America has fallen since a peak in 1991, but DPIC detects a more important trend of states and jurors turning their back on executions in favor of more common use of life sentences.
The total number of executions this year was 43, down 75 percent from a high of 215 in 1996, and Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish the penalty.
Taking the abolitionist states along with those that have allowed the death penalty to fall into de facto disuse, DPIC considers that 29, or more than half, the jurisdictions in the country no longer execute convicts.
The US federal government and the US military can also execute prisoners, but the military has not done so since 1961 nor the United States since 2003, when 53-year-old convicted murderer Louis Jones was put to death.
The most populous state, California, is holding 724 convicts on death row, a third more than second-place Florida, but has not executed anyone for seven years and came close to abolishing the penalty in a referendum this year.
Even the states in the South, traditionally more quick to turn to capital punishment, have seen execution rates fall. Texas this year executed 15 prisoners but sentenced only nine more defendants to death row.
"Things are shifting. There was a time when Texas had over 40 death sentences in a year," said Dieter, emphasizing that the drop in the number of sentences was as important as political moves to halt the practice.
"That was a little over 10 years ago and now for the past few years we've had eight or nine death sentences, that's a dramatic drop and that will eventually affect executions in Texas," he said.
Dieter explained the dramatic drop in death sentences as due, in part, to a new reluctance by jury members to convict in capital punishment cases, following revelations of previous miscarriages of justice.
This year, 38-year-old Damon Thibodeaux was freed after 15 years on death row, after newly available DNA evidence cleared him of the 1997 rape and murder of his 14-year-old cousin, the 141st defendant to escape execution on appeal.
In Texas, still the execution capital of the country, Carlos DeLuna -- executed in 1989 for the 1983 murder of a gas station attendant -- was posthumously cleared.
"Around the country, juries are hesitant to impose the death penalty because new evidence may emerge, science may reveal something five or 10 years later, and now life without parole is available, it's an alternative," Dieter said.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »