The number of death sentences imposed in the United States and the number of executions carried out have declined sharply over the past five years, according to a report to be...

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The number of death sentences imposed in the United States and the number of executions carried out have declined sharply over the past five years, according to a report to be released today by the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that opposes capital punishment.

“By every measure, the death penalty in the U.S. has been in decline since 1999,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based center, citing the public’s concerns about innocence as a principal reason.

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Five death-row inmates have been exonerated so far this year — two in Louisiana and one each in Illinois, North Carolina and Texas — for a total of 117 people set free since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment.

Robin Maher, director of the American Bar Association’s death penalty representation project, agreed that statistics reflect the public’s growing skepticism in the reliability of the death penalty and decreased confidence in fairness of the system.

“Juries are more reluctant to impose the death sentence for a variety of reasons, prime among them a parade of wrongfully convicted people leaving death row,” she said.

But Charles Hobson, an attorney with the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation — which favors capital punishment — said there are fewer death sentences because the violent-crime rate has gone down and people feel safer.

Hobson said that the budget crises facing most states also may have caused some district attorneys to become more selective about seeking the death penalty.

In 1999, 282 death sentences were handed down. In 2003, there were 144, the lowest total in 30 years; 2004’s total is likely to be smaller still, according to Justice Department projections.

And the number of executions around the United States has dropped almost 40 percent in the past five years. In 1999 there were 98 executions, the most in the modern era of the death penalty. This year there have been 59.