DALLAS (Reuters) - The number of executions in the United States fell to a 14-year low of 37 in 2008 as social concerns about the death penalty and its financial costs rise, the Death Penalty Information Center said on Thursday.
It was the third straight year of declining executions and the trend looked set to continue as the number of death sentences handed down fall, the non-partisan group said.
"Courts, legislatures and the public are increasingly skeptical about the death penalty, whether those concerns are based on innocence, inadequate legal representation, costs, or a general feeling that the system isn't fair," said Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Washington-based group.
No further executions are scheduled this year.
The declines in 2007 and 2008 had widely been attributed to a seven-month moratorium on executions imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court as it heard a challenge to the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections, the most common method of execution. That challenge was rejected in April.
But Dieter said, "We were surprised that the surge in executions that we expected after (the lifting of the moratorium) did not happen."
High legal and security costs are a key factor behind a rethink of the death penalty in many of the 36 U.S. states that still sanction it -- especially with the United States gripped by a deepening recession.
The report said by one estimate each of the five executions in Maryland in the past three decades cost about $37 million.
"Both New York and New Jersey recently abandoned the death penalty after weighing the merits of a system in which tens of millions of dollars were being spent with virtually nothing to show for it," the report said.
Condemned prisoners in America spend an average of over 12 years on death row between sentencing and execution, a lengthy period that drives up legal costs amid repeated appeals.
The long drawn-out appeals process can also take a toll on the families of victims and there are growing concerns about fairness, the possibility of wrongful convictions, and racial bias in sentencing.
Many studies have shown that a black person convicted of murdering a white person is more likely to be condemned to death than a white person who killed someone who is black.
Four death row inmates were exonerated this year, bringing to 130 the number of people who have been sentenced to death and later cleared. However, no court has found that an innocent person was wrongfully executed in the past three decades.
Two other trends were noted which are not simply explained by falling rates of violent crime: a sharp drop in the number of death sentences being handed down in favor of life jail terms and capital punishment's skewed regional distribution.
Ohio was the only state outside of the South this year to carry out an execution and almost half of all U.S. executions in 2008 were carried out in Texas.
Texas is in a death penalty league of its own with 423 executions since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a temporary ban on the practice. Virginia is second at 102 followed by Oklahoma at 88.
But even in Texas Dieter said only 11 death sentences were handed down in 2008 compared to 37 in 2002.
"DPIC estimates that the number of people sentenced to death in 2008 will be 111, the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976," the report said.
Most polls consistently show a majority of Americans in favor of capital punishment though the numbers tend to be below the peaks of close to 80 percent reached in the mid-1990s.
The United States is one of only a handful of democracies which still carries out the death penalty. Amnesty International in April ranked the United States fifth in the world in the number of executions in 2007, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Editing by David Storey