Until this month, a death-row inmate has had almost the same chance of dying by suicide, murder or of natural causes as of being executed by the state. Fifty-seven persons have been executed in the last decade, while nearly 40 death-row inmates died of other causes.
But the odds favoring execution have increased substantially since the Supreme Court cleared away one of the last major legal obstacles to executing the 1,714 death-row inmates nationwide.
Ratifying the jury-selection process used in virtually all of the 37 states with the death penalty, the court ruled recently in Lockhart v. McCree that persons opposed to the death penalty can be excluded from juries.
Experts disagree on the decision's precise impact. Some anti-capital punishment activists talk of a national "bloodbath," with hundreds of executions a year -- enough to dispatch the 200 new inmates condemned each year and to cut into the backlog. Others predict a slight increase while still others foresee a gradual annual increase to about 100 executions.
Some observers predict that after a period of numerous executions, the public will recoil and, while leaving the penalty on the books, seldom permit it to be carried out, in effect allowing a life sentence without parole.
One thing appears certain: For the first time in a decade, the overall pace of executions will not be set primarily by the high court but by prosecutors and defense lawyers, governors and lower courts and public sentiment.
The public, according to polls, opposed the death penalty 20 years ago and now favors it by substantial margins. Political, not legal considerations, may play a more prominent role in determining how many death sentences are carried out, most experts agree.
"Unless there is a dramatic change in public opinion," Florida Attorney General Jim Smith said, "we will reach the point where there will be more than two a month" in Florida. "The day is coming where the next governor of Florida -- and I hope it will be me -- is going to be signing a lot of death warrants."
Gubernatorial candidate Smith favors the penalty in a state where it is a hot political issue and candidates vie to see who can take the hardest line favoring it.
Florida sends about 30 inmates to death row annually, said Smith, who estimated that Florida will execute at least that number each year and then gradually clear its death-row population of about 240 inmates, nearly 15 percent of the national total. Florida has executed 15 men in the last 10 years, more than any other state.
About 25 percent of death-row inmates nationwide are there and in Texas.
Courts, led by the Supreme Court, had stalled executions for years, but "this delay couldn't go on forever and we reach a point where it really is going to happen," he said. "People are fed up, and people are going to have a callous attitude."
Unless the high court agrees to hear one remaining broad challenge to the death penalty -- an action many observers think unlikely -- there are no major legal obstacles to most executions.
The challenge involves the contention by death-penalty opponents, citing statistical evidence, that the penalty is discriminatory because those who kill whites stand a far greater chance of receiving the ultimate sentence than those convicted of killing blacks.
If the high court agrees to hear that argument, executions may again be put on hold, at least until it is resolved. But most experts doubt that the court will take that case, or, if it does, accept arguments against the penalty.
"The large issues have been resolved," said Henry Schwartzchild of the American Civil Liberties Union, a death-penalty opponent. "The curve will begin to rise very sharply soon. We ought to have 50 executions this year and 83 next year and so on. There is absolutely nothing legally that will stop that."
"Society will easily tolerate a great many more the death penalty more as a way to make sure people don't get parole. A sentence of life without parole is not an option here," so the public may perceive the death penalty as a "back-door way to get people locked away permanently. Maybe that's what people really want."