updated 4/25/2005 6:51:45 PM ET 2005-04-25T22:51:45

The number of people sentenced to death last year fell to the lowest level since the Supreme Court reinstated the penalty in 1976.

There were 125 people sent to death row in 2004, down from 144 the previous year and the sixth consecutive annual decline, according to figures compiled by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In 1998, 300 people received death sentences.

Miriam Gohara, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said one major cause for the decline is high-profile exonerations based on DNA evidence. She said that jurors are less willing to impose the penalty when they see that the system occasionally fails.

“I think people are more concerned about the irreversibility of the death penalty. Once somebody is executed, you can’t bring them back,” Gohara said.

Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a pro-death penalty victim advocacy group, offered another explanation.

High court narrows scope
“Not only has the murder rate declined, thank goodness, but the types of killers eligible for the death penalty have been redefined by the Supreme Court,” she said.

The high court has issued a series of decisions narrowing the scope of the death penalty’s imposition, putting a stop to the execution of juveniles, the insane and the mentally retarded. There also are more jurisdictions where jurors are given options other than death, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“Juries are being given a choice of life without parole that they didn’t have in the early ’90s,” he said.

More attention, better representation
Dieter also said increased public attention has led to better legal representation for defendants who could face the death penalty.

In his State of the Union address this year, President Bush called for more training for lawyers who represent accused killers, tacit recognition that not all suspects receive an adequate defense.

As governor of Texas, a state that executes more inmates than any other, Bush commuted one death sentence and allowed 152 executions. Texas sent the most people to death row last year — 23, followed by California, which sent 11 and Florida and Alabama, which each sent 8.

There were 3,374 prisoners awaiting execution at the end of 2003, the latest year for which figures are available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That was 188 fewer than the previous year, due largely to then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan granting clemency to all 167 inmates on his state’s death row because of concerns about wrongful convictions.

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