WASHINGTON – The number of people sentenced to death reached a 30-year low in 2003, when the death row population fell for the third year in a row, the government reported Sunday.
Last year, 144 inmates in 25 states were given the death penalty (search), 24 fewer than in 2002 and less than half the average of 297 between 1994 and 2000, according to the Justice Department.
Death penalty opponents say the report shows how wary the public is of executions, heightened by concerns about whether the punishment is administered fairly and publicity about those wrongly convicted. Illinois emptied its death row in 2003 after several inmates were found to be innocent.
"What we're seeing is hesitation on the death penalty, skepticism, reluctance," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (search). "I do think there is some concern about the death penalty and it's reflected in death sentences from juries."
Opponents also point to other possible reasons, including continuing fallout from Supreme Court (search) decisions requiring that juries be told that life in prison without parole is an alternative to death.
Dieter said 47 states now offer a life-without-parole sentence as an option for at least some convictions, compared with 30 in 1993.
Supporters doubt the decline signifies a major shift in public opinion about the death penalty, which is in effect in 38 states and the federal justice system.
"I don't think the numbers mean a lot quite frankly," said Dianne Clements, president of the victims advocacy group Justice For All. "I don't think it means a change in death penalty attitudes. I think it means the numbers change."
At the end of last year, 3,374 prisoners awaited execution, 188 fewer than in 2002, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Illinois accounted for 91 percent of the decline, the result of then-Gov. George Ryan's decision to commute the death sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison and to pardon four others.
Nationally, 267 people were removed from death row last year. That was the largest drop since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, according to the report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Last year, 65 people, all men, were executed. Texas again was the leader, with 24, followed by Oklahoma with 14 and North Carolina with 7. No other state had more than three.
All but one of those men were killed by lethal injection. The other was electrocuted.
Since 1977, 885 inmates were executed through 2003 by 32 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Two-thirds of them were in five states: Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri and Florida.
The report also found:
— Of death row inmates, 56 percent were white, while 42 percent were black. Hispanics, who can be of any race, accounted for 12 percent of inmates whose ethnicity was known.
— States with the largest number of death row inmates were California with 629, Texas with 453 and Florida with 364.
— Ten people died while awaiting execution in 2003 — six from natural causes and four from suicide.