WASHINGTON — Executions in the U.S. declined by nearly 10% this year and the total of 39 marks only the second time in nearly two decades that fewer than 40 people were put to death, according to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center.
The center, an anti-death penalty group that closely tracks capital punishment issues, attributed the decline in part to a long-term drop in new death sentences, the inaccessibility of lethal injection drugs and an erosion of public support for the death penalty.
Although the 80 new death sentences this year represent three more than in 2012, the number has declined dramatically since 1996 when it reached a high of 315.
At the same time, a decline in the numbers on death row has outpaced the number of executions. There were 3,108 inmates on death row across the country as of April 1, down from 3,170 at the same time last year.
"Fewer death sentences, fewer people on death row will mean fewer executions,'' said Richard Dieter, the center's executive director.
Texas, with traditionally the busiest execution chamber in the U.S., maintained that position with 16 executions this year, one more than 2012. But Dieter noted that those numbers may not be sustained because there were fewer new death sentences issued this year — nine — than there were executions.
"I think you will see those (execution) numbers gradually come down,'' Dieter said, adding that the numbers are converging with polls suggesting a drop in support for capital punishment.
Earlier this year, a Gallup Poll found that 60% supported the death penalty, the lowest level in 40 years. A separate poll commissioned by the Boston Globe less than six months after the Boston Marathon bombing found that 57% of city residents favored seeking a sentence of life without parole against the surviving suspect, while 33% supported the death penalty.
Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to decide soon whether to pursue the death penalty in that case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said the drop in executions had more to do with a sustained decline in violent crime in many parts of the country.
He also said the option to pursue punishments of life without parole, instead of death, are more widely available to prosecutors now. And he disputed the notion that public support for capital punishment in America was in jeopardy.
"There still is a solid majority of Americans who believe that the death penalty is the right sentence in appropriate cases,'' Burns said.