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For the fifth consecutive year, fewer people have been sentenced to death in the United States, according to a report released Dec. 19 by an anti-death penalty group. The D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center projects that 139 death sentences will be rendered in 2003. That’s a decline of 13 percent from 2002 and a drop of more than 50 percent over the last five years. In California, the state with the largest population of condemned inmates, the number of death sentences has dropped dramatically over the past four years. Statistics from the state Supreme Court show 42 death judgments in 1999 and 21 in 2002. In 2003, death sentences rose slightly to 23. The Death Penalty Information Center’s report compiles annual death judgment information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. While the bureau won’t release a 2003 figure until next year, the group predicts that the final number is likely to show a further drop. Richard Dieter, the information center’s executive director, attributes the decline to increasing public sentiment against the death penalty. He notes that a majority of people back capital punishment — 64 percent, according to the most recent Gallup Poll. But that number is lower than the 80 percent approval number Gallup reported in 1994. Also, more juries now have the legal option to sentence defendants to life without parole, he says. “It gives juries a middle ground,” Dieter says. The report also found the number of executions and the number of U.S. inmates on death row decreased in 2003. California has the largest death row, with 632 inmates, followed by Texas (451) and Florida (381). In Virginia, there are 27 people on death row, and in Maryland, 14. Texas continues to lead the country in executions. But Dieter notes that jurors there don’t have the option of sentencing a defendant to life without parole. They must either choose death or a prison term that carries a parole option. Rory Little, a professor at San Francisco’s Hastings College of the Law who sat on former Attorney General Janet Reno’s death penalty review committee, says the national and state decline reflects a “cultural hesitancy” about the death penalty. “We, as lawyers, became aware of the actual innocence phenomenon four to five years ago,” Little says, referring to the rash of death row inmates exonerated after their conviction. News about those exonerations have trickled down to “the person on the street,” he says. And people are uneasy about the disproportionate number of minorities sentenced to death. One criminal justice expert who backs the death penalty agrees that anti-death penalty sentiment is growing but says that other factors are at work. “Fatigued” prosecutors don’t seek capital punishment as much as they used to because “they know that the sentences are not going to be carried out,” says Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento. Court rulings — such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Ring v. Arizona — have overturned death sentences in cases that were done by the book, he says. Among other things, Ring held that a jury — not a judge — must decide whether to sentence a defendant to death. The Court plans to decide whether that finding is retroactive, potentially affecting the death sentences of more than 100 inmates in the West. Despite the declining numbers, Scheidegger — who contributed to a California District Attorneys Association white paper defending the death penalty — contends the number of death sentences will rise again. Scientific advances will give prosecutors the tools to assure jurors that the right person will be convicted for the right crime, he says. “The best argument that they have is residual doubt. The more assurance you have,” the less residual doubt there will be, he says. Jahna Berry is a staff writer at The Recorder, the American Lawyer Media daily newspaper in San Francisco, where this article first appeared.

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