Executions, new death sentences continue to fall

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Executions and new death sentences dropped to their lowest numbers in decades in 2014, an anti-death penalty group said in a new report.

The Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that opposes executions and tracks the issue, said 35 inmates were executed this year and 71 have so far been given death sentences.

The last time fewer inmates were put to death was in 1994, when there were 31 executions nationwide. The number of new sentences is the lowest in the 40 years that the center calls the modern death penalty era.

Since executions resumed in 1977 following a halt imposed by the Supreme Court, the number of executions peaked at 98 in 1999. That same year, 277 inmates were sentenced to death.

Problems with executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma and questions about the drugs used in lethal injection executions have contributed to delays in carrying out death sentences and public outcry, said Richard Dieter, the center's executive director. Twenty-one death row inmates in Oklahoma have filed a federal court challenge to the state's lethal injection procedures after a bungled execution at a state prison in April that the warden has a described as a "bloody mess." Oklahoma, planning to resume executions next month, says new procedures and training will prevent a repeat of the situation.

Exonerations of people who were wrongly convicted, the availability of prison terms of life without parole and the cost of capital trials and the appeals process also are factors in the persistent decline, Dieter said.

Just three states — Texas, Missouri and Florida — accounted for 28 executions, or 80 percent of the total. The only other states that carried out executions this year were Arizona, Georgia, Ohio and Oklahoma.

Almost as many people, 31, died from other causes on death row last year as were executed in 2014, according to Justice Department statistics.

"When almost all of the executions are in so few of the states, you have to question the relevancy of the death penalty in the country as a whole. If we were seeking deterrence or retribution, a lot more states would be doing this," Dieter said.

The three most populous states — California, Florida and Texas — imposed the death penalty most frequently this year. But Texas, which sentenced 48 inmates to death in 1999, has added just 10 people to death row this year, with one more sentence expected, the center said. Florida sentenced 11 inmates to death this year.

There were 14 new death sentences in California, which has the largest death row population by far. State records show 745 inmates with death sentences.

But California hasn't executed anyone since 2006 and has had just 13 executions since the adoption of its current death penalty system 35 years ago. A federal judge struck down the state's death penalty in July in part because it takes too long to execute people and is applied arbitrarily.

Sixty-nine inmates on death row were given their sentences more than 30 years ago, state records show.

The state is appealing the judge's ruling. Given a chance to get rid of capital punishment in 2012, California voters rejected abolition.

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