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Executions, death sentences remain steady over past year

While executions and death sentences remain steady, the number of states carrying out capital punishment has dropped.

Story highlights

  • Nine states executed convicted capital murderers in 2012
  • In all, 43 men were put to death in 2012, matching 2011's total
  • The author of a new report predicts fresh efforts on death penalty repeal
  • "Capital punishment is becoming marginalized and meaningless in most of the country," he says

Executions and death sentences remained steady over the past year, but the number of states carrying out capital punishment continues to drop, according to a study released Tuesday.

Forty-three men were put to death in 2012, matching 2011's total, reported the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). Eighty people were sentenced to death, the second lowest total since executions resumed in 1976.

And only nine of the 50 states carried out lethal injections of convicted capital murderers, led by Texas with 15 executions, more than a third of the nationwide total this year.

Southern states that traditionally have been active in capital punishment reported no such procedures in 2012, with that list including North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri and Virginia.

"Capital punishment is becoming marginalized and meaningless in most of the country," said Richard Dieter, DPIC executive director and author of the report.

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"In 2012, fewer states have the death penalty, fewer carried out executions, and death sentences and executions were clustered in a small number of states. It is very likely that more states will take up the question of death-penalty repeal in the years ahead."

The nonprofit organization provides accurate figures and analyses, but opposes use of the death penalty.

Ninety-eight people were executed in 1999, the highest yearly total since 1976, when the Supreme Court allowed resumption of executions by the states after a four-year moratorium.

A CNN/Opinion Research Poll conducted 14 months ago found more Americans for the first time in recent memory favor a sentence of life in prison over the death penalty for murderers, 50% to 48%.

Poll: Number who prefer death penalty declines

That is not to say that Americans want to abolish the death penalty entirely. Other polls have shown majorities generally favor it, but CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said his analysis shows a difference between thinking the government should have the death penalty as an option and actually wanting to see it applied.

The decline in the number who prefer the death penalty as the punishment for murder may be related to the growing number who believe that at least one person in the past five years has been executed for a crime that he or she did not commit. In 2005, when a solid majority preferred the death penalty, 59% believed that an innocent person had been executed within the previous five years. Now that figure has risen dramatically, to 72%.

Damon Thibodeaux was released in September after 15 years on Louisiana's death row, after post-conviction doubts were raised about whether he killed his 14-year-old step-cousin. He was the 18th capital inmate freed after subsequent DNA testing proved their innocence, according to the New York-based Innocence Project.

Texas, along with Oklahoma, Mississippi and Arizona, accounted for three-fourths of all U.S. executions this year. But Texas for the eighth straight year executed more people than it sentenced to death. Among those scheduled to be put to death next month in the state is Kimberly McCarthy, convicted of the 1997 murder of a 71-year-old woman. She would be only the third female in the United States to be given lethal injection in the past decade.

Connecticut in April became the 17th state to repeal the death penalty, but the 11 men still on death row will remain there. That includes Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, convicted of the 2007 home invasion murders of three members of the Petit family. Komisarjevsky received his death sentence three months before the state repealed capital punishment in future cases.

California voters in November by a 53% to 47% margin approved keeping capital punishment. The state has by far the nation's largest death row population at 727 inmates, but has not carried out an execution since 2005, over continuing legal challenges to the lethal injection procedures.