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Why the death penalty is at historic low in the US

By and large, Americans still support the death penalty. But concerns about the fairness of its application, and even its costs, are playing a role in the steep drop in executions and convictions.

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Protesters gather outside the building where Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles members are holding a hearing for death row inmate Troy Davis, in Atlanta in September. Davis is scheduled to die Wednesday for the 1989 slaying of off-duty Savannah, Ga., police officer Mark MacPhail.

David Tulis/AP

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Concerns about the racial fairness, costs, and growing numbers of life-without-parole sentences have all played a role in a steep decline in the number of executions and death penalty sentences in the US this year, legal analysts say.

A report released Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization dedicated to pointing out problems with capital punishment in America, shows that the number of death penalty sentences dropped below 100 – to 78 – for the first time since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

The number of actual executions also dropped from 46 last year to 43 this year, with states in the South accounting for 87 percent of those sanctions. The total was down steeply from a high of 98 in 1999.

US polls also show declining support for the idea of capital punishment, with about 61 percent now in favor – the lowest percentage since the early 1970s. Recent executions – including that of Troy Davis, convicted of murdering a police officer and executed in Georgia this summer – have raised new questions the sanction's ultimate fairness, including about the difficulty of proving innocence in a capital case.

Polls showing the growth of support for life-without-parole sentences over the death penalty hint at changing attitudes that have likely had an effect on other high-profile cases. That includes the decision by Pennsylvania prosecutors this month to decline a new capital sentencing hearing for Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. Instead of facing execution, Mr. Abu-Jamal, who has steadfastly declared his innocence, will remain in prison for the rest of his life.

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