States are continuing a trend of executing fewer prisoners and juries are wary of sentencing criminal defendants to die, according to year-end figures compiled by a group that opposes the death penalty.
The 46 executions in 2010 constituted a nearly 12 percent drop from the previous year’s total of 52, according to the group, Death Penalty Information Center, which produces an annual report on execution trends. The overall trend shows a marked drop when compared with the 85 executions in 2000.
Jurors, too, show a continuing preference for the alternative of punishing criminal defendants with sentences of life without parole. Juries handed out 114 death sentences in 2010, slightly higher than the 112 death sentences last year, and 50 percent fewer for the current decade than in the 1990s — before the widespread availability of life without parole sentences for juries in capital cases.
“There’s just a whole lot more concern about the accuracy of the death penalty, the fairness and even the costs — all are contributing,” said Richard C. Dieter, the author of the report and the executive director of the center, which is in Washington. The availability of the alternative to the death penalty, Mr. Dieter said, also means that “prosecutors know it’s going to be a harder sell and are seeking it less.”
The states continue to condemn far more prisoners to death than they actually execute.
There are 3,261 people on death row in the United States; California has the largest population, with 697, while New Hampshire and Wyoming have one apiece. A majority of Americans support the death penalty, with 64 percent of those surveyed by Gallup in October 2010 favoring it and 29 percent opposed.
One contributing factor in the low number of executions nationwide is the shortage of a drug used for executions — they were postponed or canceled in Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Hospira, the company that makes sodium thiopental, the drug, has said that it expects to resume production in the first quarter of 2011.
The legal director of a group that supports the death penalty, Kent S. Scheidegger, said Mr. Dieter’s group had interpreted facts selectively. Mr. Scheidegger, of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said that at least half the drop in death sentences could be attributed in part to a smaller number of murders in recent years, a fact that he and his group argue is a result of the nation’s high rates of incarceration.