Is Capital Punishment on Death Row?

Rick Perry's Texas still leads, as death sentences and executions fall nationwide.

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Death sentences reached a record low of 78 in 2011, according to an end-of-year report released Thursday by the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. Actual executions were also down this year.

It is the first time the number of death sentences has dropped below 100 since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 after a 10-year moratorium, according to the report, which adds that 112 were sentenced in 2010, 224 in 2000, and 315 in 1996.

In March, Illinois abolished executions altogether. "I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed," Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said when he signed the bill, adding that he believes it impossible to have a system that always gets it right. "As a state, we cannot tolerate the executions of innocent people because such actions strike at the very legitimacy of a government."

[Read Mary Kate Cary: The Conservative Case Against the Death Penalty.]

Even in 2012 presidential contender and Texas Gov. Rick Perry's home state, which has been the leader in executions—of the 1,277 since 1976, 37 percent were in Texas—has also seen a drop in the death penalty.

Only eight people were sentenced to capital punishment in Texas in 2011, compared to 48 in 1999, according to the report.

Executions have also been on the decline. In 2009, there were 24 executions in the Lone Star State, but there were 17 in 2010 and 13 in 2011.

At a presidential debate in September, however, Perry indicated he and his statesmen still have strong support for the death penalty. Asked if he loses sleep over whether or not any of the 234 people executed during his tenure were innocent, Perry said no.

[Read Laura Chapin: Rick Perry's Death Penalty Record is Nothing to Brag About.]

"The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States if that's required." Perry said. "I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment."

But national public opinion on the ultimate punishment has actually shifted downward with the execution trend. The report tracks Gallup poll numbers over the past 17 years, showing a drop in support for the death penalty from 80 percent in 1994 to 61 percent in 2011. Opposition more than doubled, from 16 percent to 35 percent in the same period.