States put brakes on capital punishment

  • **FILE** An anti-death penalty protester in Jackson, Ga., is helped off the ground Sept. 21, 2011, after hearing about a delay of the execution of Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis by the U.S. Supreme Court. Davis was convicted of killing off-duty Savannah officer Mark MacPhail. (Associated Press)**FILE** An anti-death penalty protester in Jackson, Ga., is helped off the ground Sept. 21, 2011, after hearing about a delay of the execution of Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis by the U.S. Supreme Court. Davis was convicted of killing off-duty Savannah officer Mark MacPhail. (Associated Press)
  • **FILE** Convicted murderer Gary Mark Gilmore is seen here in 1976. (Associated Press)**FILE** Convicted murderer Gary Mark Gilmore is seen here in 1976. (Associated Press)
  • **FILE** The execution room at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore., is seen here on Nov. 18, 2011. (Associated Press)**FILE** The execution room at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore., is seen here on Nov. 18, 2011. (Associated Press)
  • **FILE** This undated photo provided by the Idaho Department of Correction shows death row inmate Paul Ezra Rhoades. Rhoades was convicted of three murders in Idaho Falls and Blackfoot in 1988 and sentenced to death for two of them. (Associated Press/Idaho Department of Correction)**FILE** This undated photo provided by the Idaho Department of Correction shows death row inmate Paul Ezra Rhoades. Rhoades was convicted of three murders in Idaho Falls and Blackfoot in 1988 and sentenced to death for two of them. (Associated Press/Idaho Department of Correction)
  • **FILE** William "Billy" Mitchell, 35, of Folkston, Ga., seen here in an undated photo, was executed in 1987 for the 1974 murder of a 14-year-old boy during a convenience store robbery. (Associated Press)**FILE** William "Billy" Mitchell, 35, of Folkston, Ga., seen here in an undated photo, was executed in 1987 for the 1974 murder of a 14-year-old boy during a convenience store robbery. (Associated Press)
  • **FILE** Demonstrators chant slogans against the death penalty at a Sept. 21, 2011, rally in Jackson, Ga., for Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis, who was executed later that day for the 1991 murder of a police officer. (Associated Press)**FILE** Demonstrators chant slogans against the death penalty at a Sept. 21, 2011, rally in Jackson, Ga., for Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis, who was executed later that day for the 1991 murder of a police officer. (Associated Press)
  • **FILE** This photo provided by the Virginia Department of Corrections shows the electric chair used in the July 20, 2006, execution of death row inmate Brandon Wayne Hedrick, who chose the electric chair as his method of execution rather than lethal injection. Hedrick was convicted of the 1997 abduction, robbery, rape and murder of Lisa Crider. (Associated Press/Virginia Department of Corrections)**FILE** This photo provided by the Virginia Department of Corrections shows the electric chair used in the July 20, 2006, execution of death row inmate Brandon Wayne Hedrick, who chose the electric chair as his method of execution rather than lethal injection. Hedrick was convicted of the 1997 abduction, robbery, rape and murder of Lisa Crider. (Associated Press/Virginia Department of Corrections)
  • **FILE** Former death row inmate Earl Washington Jr. smiles during a Feb. 12, 2001, news conference in Virginia Beach, Va., as Marie Deans, a member of his legal team, listens. Washington was released from prison thanks to DNA tests showing he was wrongly convicted in the 1982 rape and slaying of Rebecca Lynn Williams. (Associated Press)**FILE** Former death row inmate Earl Washington Jr. smiles during a Feb. 12, 2001, news conference in Virginia Beach, Va., as Marie Deans, a member of his legal team, listens. Washington was released from prison thanks to DNA tests showing he was wrongly convicted in the 1982 rape and slaying of Rebecca Lynn Williams. (Associated Press)
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For just the second time since 1984, Virginia and Maryland will end the year without executing a single death row inmate — reflecting a national trend of states using capital punishment less often over the past decade.

Maryland has long been reluctant to use its death penalty. Virginia, which ranks only behind Texas in the number of executions over the past 35 years, has put fewer people to death in recent years as many cases are tied up in appeals and as juries become less likely to recommend the punishment in capital murder cases.

Analysts say executions have plummeted nationwide and are banned in some states because of rising concerns over heavy court costs, biased sentencing and, perhaps most prominently, the fear that a state could — or already has — killed an innocent person.

“The advent of science in the world of criminology has showed that the justice system makes mistakes,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “That, I think, is a real shocker for the public and jurors, and they’re now less likely to give a death sentence.”

Yearly executions in the U.S. have decreased by more than 50 percent since 1999, when 98 people were put to death — the most since the Supreme Court placed an effective moratorium on capital punishment in 1972, and reaffirmed its legality in 1976.

This year, 42 convicts have been executed in a total of nine states, even though 33 states allow the death penalty and more than 3,000 inmates are on death row nationwide.

The year’s final execution is scheduled for Tuesday in Florida, where former South Florida police officer Manuel Pardo, 56, is scheduled to be executed for killing nine people in 1986. The execution would bring the nationwide total to 43, matching last year’s total but falling short of the 46 inmates who were executed in 2010.

Mr. Dieter said execution rates rose steadily in the 1980s and 1990s as reducing crime rates became a major political issue but have since declined largely because of prosecutors’ and juries’ reliance on life without parole as a common alternative.

Slow appeals process

David Muhlhausen, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said he thinks the drop in executions largely has been a result of a national decline in murder rates and longer appeals processes for death row inmates.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, inmates executed in 2010 — the most recent year for which statistics were available — had been under sentence of death an average of 14 years and 10 months, which was nine months longer than those executed in 2009.

Mr. Muhlhausen, who supports the death penalty, said he does not expect executions to increase anytime soon unless the legal process is expedited.

Although he is reluctant to call for such reforms because they could increase the likelihood of wrongful executions, he said, the death penalty should be kept in place to punish the nation’s most violent offenders and serve as a deterrent.

“Each additional execution, in fact, saves lives,” he said. “And that’s something opponents don’t consider.”

While a declining crime rate has led to fewer executions, Mr. Dieter said, another major factor has been a number of high-profile exonerations of death row inmates.

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