- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2003

The machinery of death that is designed to execute the worst of murderers is grinding ever slower, and in some states is in disuse while the death penalty is reconsidered in courts, legislatures and governors' mansions.
Although capital punishment is still far from a dying practice, fewer murderers are being sentenced to die and the number of executions has fallen. Only one prisoner was executed in 1977, and by 1999 this number had reached 98.
In the past two years, courts have imposed death sentences at a rate about half the 296 average for seven previous years, and far below the 328 meted out in 1994.
"We're not really sure why," says Tracy L. Snell, a Justice Department statistician and co-author of the annual federal study of capital punishment. "It could be a function of the murder rate dropping in prior years. That could be part of it, but it's never going to reach that 296 again."
On Dec. 31, the overall death-row population in 37 states was 3,666, according to the annual report of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund, which tracks death-penalty cases.
That number is likely to drop substantially this year, in part because of Gov. George Ryan's commutation in Illinois of 167 death sentences on Jan. 11. That would mark only the second decrease in the death-row population since executions resumed in 1977 after the Supreme Court cleared death row and set ground rules for deciding who may be executed.
If capital punishment is actually on the wane, 2001 eventually may be seen as its watershed year.
"There were only 155 death sentences nationwide in 2001," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "My guess is the Justice Department will find the number about the same for 2002. I haven't heard of any surges in death sentences."
He says one factor is the growing practice of sentencing killers to life without parole, except in Texas, which does not have that provision and which carried out 35 percent of the nation's executions since 1977 the 299th last week.
Despite the paucity of executions in 2001, it also was the only year that the death-row population declined in the current era, dropping by a net of 20 persons from the 3,601 counted Dec. 31, 2000.
Prisons received the 155 newly condemned prisoners, but more than that left prisons, Miss Snell says. In addition to the 66 executed, 17 others on death row died of natural causes and two committed suicide. Courts overturned convictions or sentences of 90 inmates. By year's end, 46 of those had been resentenced to life, 12 awaited resentencing, and 24 were set for retrial. Charges on four were dropped and no action was taken on the other four by the end of the year.
"I don't think executions will again reach a peak in the current atmosphere, which is a lot more cautious," says Mr. Dieter, who opposes executions. "It's hard to predict what will happen five or 10 years from now but right now scrutiny is very high and the attitude is not so much to get on with executions, but to be sure about them and to be careful."
Dudley Sharp, who says he switched from opponent to outspoken death-penalty advocate, says that caution comes at a price.
"A thorough review finds that the risk of executing the innocent has been significantly overstated by death-penalty opponents, that such risk is extraordinarily low and that the cessation of executions will put many more innocents at risk," says Mr. Sharp, of the Houston-based Justice for All.
Mr. Sharp refers to frequent reports that 107 death-row inmates have been freed in the last decade, including a dozen cleared by DNA analysis. Published reports incorrectly asserted that 123 death-row prisoners were freed by DNA evidence, and many capital-punishment foes say public confidence in prosecutors was shaken by decisions that freed so many death-row inmates.
Mr. Sharp attributes the declining use of execution chambers to fewer murders and to Supreme Court review of issues that affect broad segments of those on death-row, whose execution dates are on hold while cases are pending.
"There has been about a 40 percent reduction in the murder rate nationally in the '90s, and current Supreme Court appeals deal with the retarded, juvenile murderers, racial discrimination, and the jury's role in sentencing," he says.
"It's varying within the boundaries nationwide in a way that often has happened in one state or another. Oklahoma had a spurt of 18 executions in 2001 simply because, for some odd reasons, courts were finishing off these cases all at once."
Most killers are not even tried on capital charges, a contributing factor to what capital-punishment critics condemn as a quixotic selection method for a punishment they contend doesn't halt crime. Defenders say it would seem even more capricious to restrict execution to such extreme cases as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, serial killer Ted Bundy, or al Qaeda members involved in the September 11 plot.
"State courts sentence to death about 1 percent of those accused of murder," says Matthew Durose, who tracks state sentencing trends at the Department of Justice.
In Louisiana, Missouri, and North Carolina, first-degree murder alone is punishable by death. Most other states allow execution only when aggravating factors were connected with the killings. Virginia has 12 such factors, Indiana 16. Most states include robbery, rape and multiple murders, but aggravating factors also include treason in Louisiana, drug trafficking in Florida, aircraft piracy in Mississippi, and kidnapping in South Dakota.
Mr. Sharp says blacks commit about 50 percent of murders compared with 38 percent by whites. He sees broad misunderstanding of how aggravating factors contribute both to who is sentenced to die, and to racial disparities cited by death-penalty opponents who contend that blacks are disproportionately condemned, particularly for killing whites.

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