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The problem is more than theoretical in Colorado. Any law against the death penalty enacted next year presumably would apply to James Eagan Holmes, the graduate student accused of murdering 12 people in July at an Aurora movie theater. Supporters of capital punishment are expected to frame an abolition effort as an attempt to save the life of the accused mass murderer if he is convicted.

In Maryland, where debate over ending the death penalty is a hardy perennial, another bill to eliminate capital punishment is expected to be introduced in January. Standing in the way is a 3-year-old compromise that restricts the death penalty to cases with conclusive DNA or video evidence, or a videotaped confession, which still has support from some Democratic lawmakers.

The DPIC report also showed that three states that traditionally have carried out multiple executions – North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia – have not had any this year.

Mr. Dieter attributed the decline in part to the recent spate of cases in which people convicted of crimes were found to be innocent after the introduction of DNA evidence.

“As that was happening, we started to see the steady drop starting in 2000, with this year representing a low,” said Mr. Dieter. “The availability of life without parole offers an alternative to the death penalty, so that if a mistake was made, you can rectify it.”