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The number of death penalty sentences has dropped to the lowest point since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, according to a Dec. 15 report released by the Death Penalty Information Center. Seventy-eight capital punishment verdicts were handed down this year compared to 112 last year, according to the DPIC’s Year End Death Penalty Report. Executions also decreased from 46 in 2010 to 43 in 2011. “This is a long-term drop since the year 2000…and this year was a sharper drop,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s executive director and the report’s author, in an interview. There were several factors that contributed to this year’s drop, according to the report. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn passed legislation to repeal the death penalty; Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber decided to order no more executions during his term; there was a drop in crime; and finally, public distrust of the system grew after Troy Davis of Georgia was executed despite strong doubts of his guilt were made known. “I think it is the overall distrust of the death penalty system when it comes to the final decision of sentencing someone who may be executed,” said Dieter. “It is irrevocable and too often new evidence emerges five to 10 years later that would change jurors’ minds if they still had the option.” The distrust affects the system in that there is more review and prosecutors seek the death penalty less often now, because such defendants are harder to convict, Dieter said. The director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Dianne Rust-Tierney, said she believes the drop in death penalty sentences means that the penalty is “definitely on its way out.” “This decline in use [of the death penalty] and this decline of confidence comes in a time” when legal community pillars already have shown declining trust in the fairness of the system, Rust-Tierney said. Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, disagreed. He said the decline in death penalty sentences isn’t due to loss of confidence in the system, but rather to the drop in the murder rate. Scheidegger said the past decade’s Gallup polls have shown support for the death penalty remaining steady and high with the exception of this year’s poll after the Troy Davis execution. “A drop in the [death penalty sentencing] number is a decrease in the expense and a decrease in the load on the system, which is a good thing,” Scheidegger said. “The concern, of course, would be if we are not imposing the sentencing in cases where it is warranted. That would be a problem, and the number, by itself, doesn’t tell us that.” According to this year’s Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans approved of the death penalty compared with 64 percent in 2010. This is the lowest the approval rating has been since 1972, when 49 percent of those polled approved of the penalty. Contact LeighAnne Manwarren at [email protected].

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