Drop in Death Penalty Sentences a Result of 'Growing Discomfort,' Say Experts

The number of death sentences handed out in the U.S. have decreased by approximately 75 percent over the last 15 years, while executions have fallen 60 percent. One reason for the "historic drop" is an increase in the number inmates found to be innocent after DNA testing, according to a death penalty awareness group.

In 2011, there were 78 death penalty sentences imposed, marking the first time less than 100 such sentences were given since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center's (DPIC) annual report. There were also 43 executions in 2011, which is the third-lowest number since 1995.

The DPIC credited the American public's "growing discomfort" with the death penalty due, in part, to high-profile cases like Troy Davis, the Georgia man who was executed for killing an off-duty police officer, despite there not being any DNA evidence linking him to the crime and some eyewitnesses recanting their stories.

Although Davis was eventually executed, the strong support for his case helped "[expose] deep concerns about the use of the death penalty," the DPIC report said.

In addition, Illinois and Oregon have repealed the use of the death penalty this year, which has contributed to a drop in death penalty sentences. High costs for administering the death penalty, which often require several appeals before the inmate is finally executed, are a big concern for states in financial trouble.

In California, which has the highest amount of inmates on death row at 721, according to Amnesty International, the state legislature is considering repealing the death penalty due to the substantial cost savings.

California's current death penalty system costs the state $137 million per year. However, the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice says that a system without the death penalty could be reduced to $11.5 million.

There is also a growing awareness that innocent people could be executed, due to the increase in prisoners who have been exonerated after DNA evidence proved their innocence.

According to the Innocence Project, there have been 281 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the U.S. since 1989, of which 17 were innocent people on death row.

In total, 139 death row inmates were exonerated since 1971, either because of DNA, or new non-DNA evidence, according to DPIC.

Before signing the bill repealing the death penalty in Illinois on March 9, 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois admitted that the justice system cannot be free of inconsistency and inaccuracy.

"I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed," he said. "The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right."

Before issuing his reprieve of the death penalty, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber told reporters that the death penalty is an "expensive, unworkable system that fails to meet the basic standards of justice."

Although nearly 200 inmates have been exonerated after being on death row, the possibility of an innocent person being killed due to a faulty justice system was brought to the forefront with the Troy Davis case, according Richard Dieter, president of DPIC.

"I think that shook the confidence that some people had about the death penalty, that it really does risk innocent lives -- even though many are guilty -- there’s still the danger and so juries are returning less death sentences, prosecutors are seeking it less," Dieter said, according to MSNBC. "Courts are looking at these cases more closely and governors are sometimes granting clemency, all because of the doubts and disfavor of the death penalty as it has been applied in the past 10 years."

Brian Evans, a campaigner for death penalty abolishment at Amnesty International, told The Christian Post that the growing awareness of flaws in the justice system has made the public more reluctant to allow the government to take a life.

"Juries don't want to impose the death penalty if there's a good alternative," he said. "The public has reached a turning point and there is a growing sentiment that the death penalty does more harm than good...In states that have life without parole, people tend to more comfortable with that."

However, Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, told MSNBC that he "strongly" disagreed that public sentiment against the death penalty was growing.

"I think that the numbers show that the majority of the public still believe that in those rare and outrageous cases that the death penalty is an appropriate sanction," he said. "One of the reasons for that, I believe, is because … the criminal justice system has done a good job at targeting those violent offenders nationwide" and handing out "long and stiff sentences."

A recent Gallup poll reflects Burns' view that the majority of Americans support the death penalty. According to the poll, 61 percent of Americans are in favor of capital punishment. However, that percentage is the lowest it has been since 1971.

Burns did agree, however, that juries prefer life without parole over the death penalty, in part because inmates would really be in prison for life, and also because they see it as a more severe punishment.

"There were a number of states that passed … for lack of a better term, a 'truth in sentencing' [law], which said life or life without parole really does mean life without parole," he said, meaning that, in those states, it "could also be a reason as [to] why we are seeing fewer death penalties. Frankly, there are some people that think it’s a more severe penalty to have somebody sit in prison for their entire life than be executed."

Whatever the reason for the decrease in death penalty sentences and executions, Evans believes the current trend will continue. "I think that in the next 10-12 years, if we even still have the death penalty, we'll see a steep drop," he said.