The number of death sentences imposed in U.S. courts have dropped precipitously this year, representing the leading edge of a continuing decline in capital punishment nationwide.
Only 49 death sentences have been handed down, a 33% drop from the 73 imposed in 2014. Only 28 prisoners were executed, the fewest since 1991 -- and only six states were involved, the fewest since 1988.
Those and other statistics were released Wednesday by the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks trends on capital punishment. It found fewer than 3,000 inmates on death row, the lowest number since 1995.
“By all measures, the death penalty was in significant decline in 2015,” said Robert Dunham, the center's executive director. "There was downward movement in all these categories."
Fueling the decline was further evidence that death sentences are in some cases wrongly imposed and lethal injections botched. At least 70 people who had executions scheduled in 2015 got stays of execution, reprieves or commutations. Six people on death row were exonerated, bringing the total to 156 since 1973.
That in turn has prompted states such as Ohio to impose a moratorium on lethal injections. Utah and Oklahoma brought back the firing squad and nitrogen gas, respectively, as backup methods. And Nebraska's legislature voted to abolish the death penalty completely.
Public opinion surveys showed a decline this year as well, though 56% to 61% of Americans still support the death penalty, according to Gallup and the Pew Research Center. Reduced public support generally tracks along with fewer death sentences, according to research conducted at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
“There’s been an erosion of public confidence in a range of forensic testimony that prosecutors have traditionally used in capital cases,” Dunham said. The drop in death sentences, he said, shows that "prosecutors are sensitive to what juries are doing."
A separate report out Wednesday claimed that 19 of the 28 prisoners executed suffered from severe mental disabilities or experienced extreme childhood trauma and abuse. The report from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice said many of the condemned had multiple mental impairments.
The Supreme Court in June upheld a controversial form of lethal injection that had been botched in three states, but while Oklahoma won the case, it postponed all executions after another drug mix-up. Two justices -- Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- said at the time that the death penalty itself may be unconstitutional.
The states that held executions in 2015 were Texas (13), Missouri (6), Georgia (5), Florida (2), Oklahoma and Virginia.