Legal Challenges Put Brakes on Executions

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The number of executions in the United States hit a 13-year low in 2007, mostly because of a de facto moratorium on the death penalty prompted by challenges against the use of lethal injection, according to a report by a group that opposes capital punishment.

There were 42 executions in 2007, down from 53 last year and the lowest number since 31 people were put to death in 1994, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The most immediate reason is court challenges across the nation that focus on the constitutionality of the chemical combination used in lethal injections by all but one of the 36 states that have the death penalty.

There have been no executions since Sept. 25, the day the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge from two Kentucky death row inmates that the procedure violates the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The report said that more than 40 executions across the country have been stayed because of concerns about physical pain experienced during the procedure.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case Jan. 7.

Richard Dieter, the center's executive director, said that while lethal injection challenges are the immediate cause of the slowdown, "the pattern over the years is broader than that."

For instance, the group estimates at 110 the number of death sentences imposed in 2007, the fewest since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. It is the latest in a series of what Dieter calls "historic lows," since the number of death sentences peaked in 1999 at 277.

This week, New Jersey became the first state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty. Legislatures in five states, including Maryland, have considered abandoning capital punishment in favor of life without parole. New York is without a death penalty because its law was found unconstitutional.

Nearly 90 percent of the executions this year were carried out in the South -- 26 of the 42 in Texas alone. But some of the states with more frequent use of capital punishment, such as Virginia and Florida, had no executions.

Kent Scheidegger, a prominent death penalty proponent who is legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the number of death sentences is falling because the number of murders is declining. But he acknowledged that such a proportional decline accounts for only part of the decrease.

Dieter said the slowdown in both executions and death sentences is not a "moral" choice but a "pragmatic analysis of the death penalty" by prosecutors and jurors.

Dieter said that publicity surrounding exonerated death row inmates makes jurors more demanding about evidence. The Supreme Court has limited the application of capital punishment and has required more careful reviews of death sentences.

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