Death penalty sentences plunge to historic lows in 2011

Liz Goodwin
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For the first time in decades, fewer than 100 people were sentenced to death in America this year.

Seventy-eight people were handed the death sentence in courts in 2011--the lowest number since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1978, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Death sentences have been declining since 1998, the advocacy group says, when around 300 people per year were sentenced to death. Executions have also been declining: Forty-three people were put to death this year--a 50 percent decline from 10 years ago, when 85 were executed.

A majority of Americans say they support the death penalty in public opinion polls, but that margin of support has eroded over the past 20 years from 80 percent to about 60 percent now.

This year, Illinois abolished the death penalty entirely, and Oregon's governor John Kitzhaber announced a moratorium on executions while he's in office. The execution of Troy Davis, a Georgia inmate who maintained his innocence, rallied death penalty opponents who said the punishment needs to be abolished. About 3,200 people are on death row in America, with more than 700 of them in California. Thirty-four states use the punishment.

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Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, told NPR that death sentences may be falling because prosecutors are turning to life without parole sentences instead--an option that didn't exist 30 years ago. "Victims and prosecutors and others have unfortunately have come to learn that the death sentence really means 25 years of appeals and habeas and more appeals, and the penalty is seldom imposed," Burns told NPR. Violent crime has also dropped sharply over the past two decades.

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