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Lethal Injection

Number of Death Sentences and Executions Hit New Lows

The number of executions in the United States hit a 20-year low in 2014, a dip driven in part by lethal-injection drug shortages and legal battles stemming from botched procedures. Thirty-five death-row inmates in seven states were killed last year, the lowest number since 1994, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. Executions peaked in 1999; there were 98 that year.

Oklahoma's bungled execution of Clayton Lockett in April and the protracted lethal injection of Dennis McGuire in Ohio in January brought attention to new drug protocols adopted by a number of states after some manufacturers stopped selling their products to put inmates to death. Investigations and lawsuits from other inmates have led to delays for others on death-row, although the pace hasn't slowed in Texas or Missouri.

Richard Dieter, the center's executive director, said as some of the litigation is resolved, the number of executions may rise next year — but he thinks that trend is temporary. Death sentences hit a 40-year low last year and have been in steep decline for the last two decades, plunging from 315 in 1994 to about 72 in 2014. "The realization that mistakes have been made, that innocent people are still being freed, has made juries hesistant," Dieter said. "They are willing to convict but not sentence to death. There is a demand for perfect proof, and so prosecutors are taking more plea bargains."

Seven death-row inmates were exonerated last year, the most since 2009.

A majority of Americans still support capital punishment. In a May poll by NBC News, 59 percent said they favor the death penalty as the ultimate punishment for murder, while 35 percent said they are opposed. That reflects the erosion of support since the 1990s, when more than 70 percent backed executions.

Who Watches Inmate Executions in the U.S.? 0:42

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— Tracy Connor and Pete Williams