updated 9/15/2004 6:38:47 PM ET 2004-09-15T22:38:47

The number of people sentenced to death in the United States has fallen substantially over the last few years, as the number cleared from death row continues to climb, an advocacy group reported Wednesday.

The Death Penalty Information Center argues that juries have become more reluctant to sentence defendants to be executed given questions about the death penalty in recent years, including several high-profile cases in which prisoners have been vindicated from death row.

The center also pointed to the moratorium on executions in Illinois imposed by the state’s former governor, George Ryan.

“It gives a real doubt to the public and to jurors that there may be a mistake uncovered five or 10 years from now,” said Richard Dieter, the center’s executive director. “Given that knowledge, they’re hesitant or less likely to impose the death penalty.”

Some death penalty supporters agree that the public mood has changed, while others say juries have always been ultra-careful in sentencing death.

In any case, the number of death penalty sentences has fallen since the 1990s, when an average of 290 defendants were sentenced to death each year. But between 2000 and 2003, the yearly average declined to 174.

In 2003, just 143 people were sentenced to die, the lowest since 1977, when the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in the United States.

The Death Penalty Information Center, which compiled the report, attributed the decline to the rising number of defendants who have seen their death penalty convictions overturned. Its report counted 116 people who have been cleared from death row, including 14 who were proved innocent by later DNA testing.

Critics say that number is inflated because it includes people who were not proven innocent but had convictions overturned for procedural reasons. The real number is probably closer to 40, said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a group that supports the death penalty.

The falling number of death sentences may also be due to a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s that required that juries be told that life in prison without parole was an alternative to death, Dieter said. In the past, juries sometimes believed they were choosing between death and the chance that the convicted would someday be released.

Plus, Dieter noted that 47 states now offer a life-without-parole sentence as an option at least for some offenders, up from 30 in 1993.

Opponents attribute most of the drop in death sentences to an overall drop in crime, though that may be hard to prove. The murder rate fell steadily in the mid- and late-1990s, when death sentencing was still at a high level. Since then, the murder rate has been rising slowly, just as the number of death sentences has fallen.

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