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Why is use of the death penalty going down?

Fewer people received a death sentence over the past 12 months than in any year since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. One reason: Some state prosecutors are growing more hesitant to seek a death sentence in cases that might later be upended because of DNA evidence.

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In this May 27, 2008 file photo, the gurney used to restrain condemned prisoners during the lethal injection process is shown in Huntsville, Texas.

Pat Sullivan/AP/File

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Fewer people received a death sentence over the past 12 months than in any year since 1976 – the year that capital punishment was reinstated in the US.

That finding was released Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). But it doesn’t mean that capital punishment is headed for immediate extinction: The death penalty is included in the laws of 35 states – and in some states, such as California, the number of death sentences has actually risen. Also, surveys show that the capital punishment has the support of most Americans.

But if use of the death penalty is declining overall, why is that?

One reason: Some state prosecutors are growing more hesitant to seek a death sentence in cases that might later be upended because of DNA evidence. Since DNA entered the courtroom in 1989, 248 criminal convictions have been overturned, 17 of which involved inmates on death row, according to the Innocence Project of Florida.

“What DNA has provided [to the debate] is a recognition that the public is very concerned that the system is accurate,” says Lance Lindsey, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, an anti-death penalty advocacy group in San Francisco. “DNA symbolizes that there’s a desire by the public that we get these sentences right.”

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