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Death penalty on decline — a positive trend

The Death Penalty: By numbers

The Death Penalty: By the numbers

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Updated: January 24, 2014 6:13AM

The death penalty is on the decline in the U.S., an encouraging and humanizing trend for a nation in need of one.

Across America, citizens and politicians are learning a simple truth: The ultimate punishment cannot be fairly delivered by our flawed criminal-justice system.

In 2013, executions declined by nearly 10 percent, fewer states imposed death sentences, the number of states with the death penalty dropped and public support for capital punishment hit a 40-year low, according to an annual review by the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.

There were 39 executions in 2013 compared with a high of 98 executions in 1999. Some 80 death sentences were handed down compared with a high of 315 in 1996, near the lowest level since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976.

In 2013, Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment, following Illinois in 2011. Thirty-two states still allow capital punishment.

The reasons for these trends are many, including a practical one — the shortage of drugs used for lethal injections, according to the Center’s report. But there’s no question that growing unease with the potential for irreversible mistakes and the cost of capital punishment also are driving the trend.

Illinois has already gone down that path. More than a decade ago, then-Gov. George Ryan commuted all existing death sentences to life in prison and placed a moratorium on further executions, saying he had lost confidence in the reliability of convictions in capital cases. That was followed by abolishment of the death penalty in 2011.

In Illinois and elsewhere, politicians are throwing aside naive notions of a wholly accurate criminal-justice system, recognizing that the risks of executing innocent people are far higher than many had realized. In some states, there are examples of death penalty defendants represented by incompetent and lowly paid, court-appointed attorneys who sometimes slept during trials, did little preparation and missed deadlines for filing appeals.

And after instituting reforms to try to mitigate such risks, like insisting that death penalty defendants are assigned experienced lawyers, many former death penalty proponents now say the costs and delays have rendered the death penalty unworkable. In the last decade, for example, the state of Illinois paid $100 million to the Capital Litigation Trust Fund — and that’s only part of the cost.

The expansion of an alternative in some states — life in prison without parole — also has fueled the movement away from the death penalty, giving the most heinous offenders the punishment they deserve.

The drift away from a flawed capital punishment system is far from complete. More than 3,000 people remain on Death Row, and if the lethal drug shortage is resolved, the number of executions will undoubtedly rise.

In October, Reginald Griffin of Missouri became the 143rd person to be exonerated from Death Row since 1973. In Illinois, 20 men were freed from Death Row.

The vast majority of people on Death Row are guilty as charged.

But what about the ones who don’t belong there?

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