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Friday, January 5, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. death sentences drop to 30-year low

The Associated Press

The number of death sentences handed out in the United States dropped in 2006 to the lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated 30 years ago, reflecting what some experts say is a growing fear that the criminal justice system will make a tragic and irreversible mistake.

Executions fell, too, to the fewest in a decade.

"The death penalty is on the defensive," said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization in Washington, D.C., that looks at problems with the capital punishment system.

Death sentences fell in 2006 to 114 or fewer, according to an estimate from the group. That was down from 128 in 2005, and sharply lower than the high of 317 in 1996.

Fifty-three executions were carried out in 2006, down from 60 in 2005. Executions over the past three decades peaked at 98 in 1999.

Among the many causes given by prosecutors, lawyers and death-penalty critics: the passage of more state laws that allow juries to impose life without parole; an overall drop in violent crime; and a reluctance among some authorities to pursue the death penalty because of the high costs of prosecuting a capital case.

But above all, many said, is the possibility of a mistake. Since the death penalty was reinstated, 123 people have been freed from death row after significant questions were raised about their convictions — 14 of them through DNA testing, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

"The fact is they've gotten a lot of the wrong guys," said Deborah Fleischaker, director of the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project. "There's no question that has, in the public, created a lot of doubt about how the death penalty is working."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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