Executions hit a 14-year low nationally, with 37 in 2008, and new death sentences fell to a 30-year low, according to a year-end report by the Death Penalty Information Center.
Use of capital punishment had been under a de facto moratorium for roughly eight months, until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld lethal injection in April 2008. But even with the decision in Baze v. Rees, 128 S.Ct. 1520, upholding Kentucky’s lethal injection system, only nine states resumed executions and all but one, Ohio, were in the South.
The report indicates that almost half the 37 executions were in Texas alone, which had 18. Only two states, New York and New Jersey do not have the death penalty.
California has the largest death row of any state, with 667 inmates awaiting execution. California, along with Maryland, Delaware and North Carolina, did not resume executions because their lethal injection programs remain unsettled legally.
Executions peaked in 1999 with 98, but have fallen each year since, with 42 in 2007 and 37 in 2008, according to the report.
Death sentences have declined in every part of the country since 2000. The only area of increase in the use of capital punishment has been in federal cases.
Congress expanded the federal death penalty law in 1994, and during the past eight years, the Bush administration placed more emphasis on bringing federal capital cases, according to the center.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics, in a count of death sentences rendered in 2007, found that the 115 new capital sentences was the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
The Death Penalty Information Center projects that the number in 2008 will fall again to 111 new sentences by the end of the year. The declines show a drop of approximately 60% from the 1990s, when the number of death sentences ranged close to 300 per year.
The center speculates that innocence has grown as a concern for people considering their position on execution.
In 2008, four death row inmates were freed, two based on DNA testing, a third when a star prosecution witness recanted, saying she was coached by a detective on what to say. The fourth conviction was overturned because evidence was withheld, according to the report.
The 37 executions in 2008, included 18 in Texas; four in Virginia; three each in Georgia and South Carolina; two each in Florida, Mississippi and Ohio; and one in Kentucky.