The use of the death penalty (search) dropped this year for the fifth year in a row, as questions grow about the guilt of the condemned and more states take a hard look at their use of executions, says a report by a group critical of the punishment.

The Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center's (search) look at 2004 figures shows a 40 percent drop in executions since 1999, a 50 percent decline in death sentences handed out and a shrinking death row population.

The report to be released Tuesday follows last month's Bureau of Justice Statistics (search) figures showing the number of people sentenced to death declining — and includes preliminary 2004 numbers.

There have been 59 executions in 2004 — down from 65 a year earlier, according to the report, which looked at figures up to mid-December and said no more executions were scheduled this year. Death sentences, projected from the first three-quarters of the year, were anticipated to be 130 in 2004 — the lowest number in 30 years, down from 144 the previous year.

The majority of executions, 85 percent, took place in the South.

The report attributes the decline of the death penalty in part to high-profile cases in which innocent people were freed from death row. Last year, 12 people were freed from death row, more than any other year since the death penalty was reinstated. This year, five people have been exonerated.

In New York, the state's highest court found the death penalty statute to be unconstitutional; in New Jersey, questions about the method of execution have put all cases on hold.

"The events of the past year and the statistical evidence all point in one direction," said Richard Dieter, the center's executive director. "The public's confidence in the death penalty has seriously eroded over the past several years."

Dianne Clements, president of the Houston-based Justice for All victims advocacy group, criticized the report, saying, "It is impossible for anyone to make an intellectually honest argument that the death penalty is up or down based on high-profile cases.

"The murder rate is down," she said. "If the murder rate is down, how can you have more capital punishment trials? There is a direct relationship between capital punishment and capital murder."