46 executions in the U.S. in 2010 are still too many

Sunday, December 26, 2010; 7:11 PM

THERE IS REASON for hope when no new death sentences are imposed in death penalty states, as happened in Virginia and Georgia in 2010. Also heartening are drops in the number of executions in places such as Texas, which has long been the nation's leader in capital punishment but put to death seven fewer inmates this year than in 2009.

The downward trend is welcome. We hope that it is heading toward abolition. Only then will there be certainty that the state has not put innocents to death.

Nationwide, the number of executions fell from 52 in 2009 to 46 in 2010, according to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that studies capital punishment. Texas was responsible for 17, more than twice as many as any other state; Virginia, whose 108 executions since 1976 are second only to Texas, carried out three executions.

The report reaffirms the trend away from capital punishment. The number of death sentences has fallen by almost 50 percent since 2000, when 224 inmates were sentenced to death. In 2010, 114 death sentences were imposed. Although 35 states allow capital punishment, only 12 carried out executions this year.

The nation's growing skepticism over capital punishment is fueled by several factors. Juries appear less willing to impose death sentences when given the choice of imposing a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Most death penalty states offer this option, including Texas, which passed such a law in 2005. Litigating a capital case is expensive - on average $3 million, according to the death penalty center - and exceeds the costs of imprisoning an inmate for decades.

Most important, there is the concern over possibly putting an innocent person to death. Since 1973, some 130 death row inmates have been exonerated, largely through the use of DNA evidence. Yet not every state allows death row inmates access to such testing.

Some states, most recently New Mexico and New Jersey, have abolished the death penalty. Maryland, which has five inmates on its death row and has carried out only five executions since 1976, came tantalizingly close in 2009. State lawmakers should renew the effort when they reconvene in 2011.

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