A recent article by Alex Kotlowitz in the New York Times Magazine examined why jurors who affirmed their willingness to impose a death sentence are increasingly voting for life in capital cases. The article noted:
Over the past few years, detective work and advances in DNA technology have uncovered a frighteningly high number of wrongfully convicted, especially on death row. But there may be another, albeit quieter, revolution taking place, out of view, in jury rooms. The number of death sentences handed down has dropped precipitously, from a modern-day peak of 319 in 1996 to 229 in 2000, and then to 155 in 2001. And a study released just last month reported that in 15 of the last 16 federal capital trials, jurors chose life sentences over death.
There are a number of factors at work here. In early 2000, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, staggered by the number of wrongful convictions in his state, declared a moratorium on executions. It received a good deal of national press and undoubtedly made some prosecutors and jurors more cautious. (Last January, Ryan went beyond a moratorium; he pardoned four inmates and commuted the sentences of the other 167 on Illinois's death row.) Additionally, the murder rate has been in a steady decline, though that has been going on for some time.
There are two factors, however, that more than anything else may help explain the decline in death-penalty sentences. One is the increasing availability of life without parole as an option, which all but three death-penalty states now offer. In polls, three-fourths of Americans say they believe in the death penalty. But when asked whether they'd support capital punishment if life without parole was an option, the number is reduced to half.
The other contributor, perhaps tougher to measure, is a development over the last decade: an increasing number of defense attorneys have become more skilled and resourceful in persuading jurors that the lives of their clients are worth saving.