WASHINGTON -- Death row executions dropped to 85 last year, 13 fewer than in 1999, the Justice Department reported Tuesday. The decline signals that wrongful murder convictions and a lower homicide rate are driving down the use of the ultimate punishment.
Forty of last year's 85 executions took place in Texas and 11 were in Oklahoma, the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics reported.
Just 214 death sentences were handed out in the United States last year, compared to 280 in 1999 and 303 in 1998.
"This would be the lowest number of death sentences imposed in the country since 1980" when the figure was 173, said Columbia University law professor James Liebman.
There is a growing concern in courts, governors' offices and state legislatures about mistakes in death penalty cases, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
The total number of executions for 2001 will be 66, Dieter predicted.
"The clamor for the death penalty is not quite as loud because the homicide rate is lower," said James Alan Fox, Lipman professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University.
Homicides in 1991 totaled 24,700, but were down to 15,000 last year.