HOUSTON, Dec. 13 — For the second year in a row, the number of executions declined across the country, a pattern partly attributable to the ebb and flow of the appeals process yet one that punctuates a year in which many states re-examined the fairness of capital punishment.
The last scheduled execution for 2001 occurred Wednesday night in Texas, when a convicted murderer, Vincent Edward Cooks, became the 66th inmate in the nation put to death, down from 85 in 2000 and 98 in 1999. This is the first time since executions resumed in 1977 that the number of executions has fallen in consecutive years.
In addition, the number of people sentenced to death nationally fell each year from 1998 to 2000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which does not yet have figures for this year. Equally notable, Texas, the perennial leader in executions, saw a decline to 17 executions in 2001, compared with a record 40 last year, and trailed Oklahoma, which led the nation by executing 18 convicted murderers.
The drop in executions concludes a year in which capital punishment was debated in statehouses across the country as polls showed growing public concern that an innocent person could be put to death. Seventeen states enacted laws granting inmates access to post-conviction DNA testing, while five states banned the execution of mentally retarded inmates. In all, 38 states allow the death penalty.
"The patterns are: public opinion down, legislative changes in many laws and death sentences and executions have been down for two years running," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, a group critical of the death penalty that this week issued a year-end compilation of national and statewide statistics.
But officials in Texas and Oklahoma, the two states with the most significant changes, attributed the fluctuating execution numbers to the death-row appeals process rather than any anti-death penalty trend. Gerald Adams, a spokesman for Oklahoma's attorney general, Drew Edmondson, said the United States Supreme Court in October 2000 issued execution orders on eight cases from the state that had been pending.
Because Oklahoma law requires that executions be carried out within 60 days of a final court order, those eight executions should have been held last December. But Mr. Adams said the state decided to postpone them because of the holidays. All eight were carried out between Jan. 1 and Feb. 1, a flurry that pushed the state's total to 18 in 2001 from 11 in 2000.
"It's obviously the highest number of executions that have been carried out in the state's history," Mr. Adams said.
By comparison, executions dropped markedly in Texas this year after the period from 1997 to 2000 under the tenure of Gov. George W. Bush when the state executed a record 132 people. State officials said those cases had been backlogged in the legal system until court rulings allowed the executions to go forward. In addition, changes in federal and state laws led to a streamlined appeals process.
"Really what that represents is that everyone was stuck in the pipeline," Larry Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said of the heavy numbers of executions in recent years.
This year, with those backlogged cases carried out, Mr. Fitzgerald said the state returned to a more normal number of 17. As for 2002, Mr. Fitzgerald said the state had scheduled five executions for January through March 7.
David Dow, a University of Houston law professor, noted that several cases pending in Texas will be affected when the state's Court of Criminal Appeals rules on a case involving the constitutionality of incompetent appeals lawyers for capital inmates. And inmates across the nation will be affected by a case before the United States Supreme Court that addresses the legality of executing the mentally retarded. Mr. Dow also said the new DNA laws provided another avenue of appeal for inmates that might serve to slow the number of executions.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Defense Foundation, a pro-death penalty group in Sacramento, predicted that the DNA laws would ultimately result in very few reversals and also discounted the significance in the recent downward trend in executions.
"I don't see that as a big deal," Mr. Scheidegger said. "I expect that number will go back up as temporary issues are resolved."
Nationally, polls show that a majority of Americans support the death penalty, though that support has gradually eroded. A Gallup poll this spring showed that 65 percent of Americans supported capital punishment, down from about 80 percent in 1994. Polls also show that Americans are increasingly concerned about how the death penalty is administered, particularly in light of prominent cases of freed death row inmates. An ABC News poll in April found that 51 percent of respondents supported a nationwide moratorium on executions while a commission studied the fairness of the death penalty.
This year, five people were freed from death rows, bringing the total to 98 since 1973.
The heightened scrutiny and controversy surrounding capital punishment prompted action in many states this year.
Governors in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri and North Carolina signed bills banning the execution of the mentally retarded, while Gov. Rick Perry of Texas came under heavy criticism for vetoing a similar bill.
In addition to passing a DNA testing law, Texas was also one of several states that enacted laws intended to strengthen the system of providing lawyers to indigent defendants, including those facing capital charges.