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The Year in Death

Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page B06

ONLY A FEW years ago, in 1999, Americans saw 98 people put to death -- a modern record following two decades of steady increases. Since then, however, there has been a precipitous decline in capital punishment. Two years after its peak, the number of executions had fallen to 66, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center. And after blipping marginally back up for a year, it fell again -- from 71 executions in 2002 to 65 executions in 2003 and down to 59 executions this past year. This is a 40 percent drop from the 1999 figure. What's more, new death sentences have fallen by more than 50 percent since the mid-1990s, and death row is gradually shrinking. Public support for capital punishment has also decreased.

The distribution of executions this year is no surprise. Texas as usual has the dubious honor of leading the nation in death -- by a country mile. The Lone Star State killed 23 people, more than three times the seven executions that second-place Ohio carried out. The regional concentration of executions, which has become particularly dramatic in recent years, continued in 2004. Only 12 of the 38 states that permit the death penalty actually conducted executions last year, and just three of those -- Ohio, Nevada and Maryland -- were outside the South. The top six death-penalty states this past year -- Texas, Ohio, Oklahoma (which executed six), Virginia (five), North Carolina (four) and South Carolina (four) -- accounted for 83 percent of the country's executions. Capital punishment, in short, is not merely becoming rarer; it is significantly more geographically isolated than during the 1990s.

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These trends are promising, because they reflect growing public concerns over the death penalty. And that concern is crucial to ultimately abolishing it. The political will to abolish the death penalty does not exist. But the fewer states that actually carry out executions regularly, the easier it becomes to demonstrate that capital punishment is an unnecessary and reckless gambit that accomplishes nothing at great moral and financial cost and always carries some risk of an irreversible catastrophe.

That risk is not trivial. The advent of DNA testing has spurred a rash of death row exonerations over the past several years -- exonerations that have driven the reform movement. Only last month the Chicago Tribune reported on its remarkable investigation of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in February. The Tribune reported that the case against him for killing his children by burning down his home was "based primarily on arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances"; the fire may well have been accidental and Mr. Willingham innocent. The truth is that nobody can say with confidence that all of the 944 people executed in the United States in the modern era of capital punishment were guilty. The laws of probability, rather, strongly suggest otherwise.

Capital punishment in this country is not going to be abolished overnight. And it is surely premature to venture the prediction that the past five years are the beginning of its final decay. It is not, however, too soon to venture that hope.

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