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US death penalty rates continuing to drop: report

There were only 78 new death sentences handed down in the US in 2011—the first time that number has dropped below 100 since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976—according to a report [text, PDF; press release] published Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) [advocacy website]. There were 43 executions in 13 states in 2001, down from 46 executions in 2011. The report noted that Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011 and that Oregon's governor put a moratorium on executions [JURIST reports] in that state. The DPIC also pointed to the huge public outcry over the execution of Georgia inmate Troy Davis [JURIST report] as evidence of Americans' waning support of the death penalty. According to the report, the death penalty system in the US remains flawed:

In many ways the death penalty today resembles the system struck down in 1972, when the Court could find no justification for the small number of death sentences and executions chosen arbitrarily from so many eligible cases. The new system approved in 1976 was supposed to carefully guide prosecutors, juries, and judges in administering a more rational system. Today, the promise of a fair, sensible, and effective system of capital punishment has proven false. As distrust of the system has grown, the death penalty is again infrequently applied, and a host of arbitrary factors still strongly influences who lives and who dies.
The trends are similar to those observed in the DPIC's 2010 report [JURIST report].

The death penalty remains a controversial issue across the US. Earlier this week North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue [official website] vetoed legislation [JURIST report] that would have essentially repealed the state's Racial Justice Act [text, PDF]. The 2009 law, which allows death row inmates to appeal their sentences based on statistical evidence of racism, was designed to address concerns that racial bias plays a role in sentencing. Last month the Connecticut Supreme Court [official website] upheld [JURIST report] the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law. Also in November the Ohio Supreme Court [official website] announced that it was forming a committee to ensure that the death penalty is not administered arbitrarily [JURIST report]. In 2009, New Mexico repealed its death penalty [JURIST report] on similar grounds to Illinois, asserting that the state could not possibly administer the death penalty impartially.

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