The number of death sentences passed in the United States has dropped dropped last year to the lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated 30 years ago, according to a new study, reflecting broader misgivings about both the safety of capital convictions and the human rights issues arising from administering death row in the world's most powerful democracy.
The latest annual report from the Death Penalty Information Centre (DPIC), a Washington-based group, shows that US judges and juries issued 114 death sentences in 2006, down from 128 the previous year and down a notable 65 per cent from 1996's highwater mark of 317 convictions.
For some time the number of executions has been diminishing across the country as the development of DNA evidence and other tools have cast an unflattering light on the administration of the ultimate punishment. Studies have suggested that the death penalty is biased against poor people, black people and, most especially, defendants accused of committing crimes while in prison for other offences.
Less well-publicised has been the shrinking number of convictions. Courts in many states appear to be favouring sentences of life without parole as an alternative that is less drastic, equally satisfactory in terms of public safety and much less expensive to administer.
"The death penalty is on the defensive," said Richard Dieter, the DPIC's director, as the annual report was released.
It has been a rough few months for advocates of capital punishment in the US. Ten states have in effect halted executions because of concerns that their favoured method, death by lethal injection, inflicts intolerable pain on the condemned prisoners. Illinois is in its seventh year of an open-ended moratorium on executions and New Jersey is considering abolishing its death penalty.
The gruesome images of Saddam Hussein's hanging in Iraq, captured on a video mobile phone and beamed around the world via the internet, have underlined the barbaric nature of state-sanctioned killing. Organisations including Human Rights Watch have argued that the images - showing a stoic Saddam taunted by a gang of masked men looking much more like criminals than him - have put a shine on Saddam's otherwise horrific record of killings and torture.
"They will not strengthen the argument of death penalty proponents in the United States or anywhere else," said Richard Dicker, the director of Human Rights Watch.
Earlier this week, a special commission established by the New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, an outspoken death penalty opponent, concluded that justice would be better served by sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. "There is no compelling evidence," the report said, "that the New Jersey death penalty rationally serves a legitimate penological intent.
"There is increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency. The penological interest in executing a small number of persons guilty of murder is not sufficiently compelling to justify the risk of making an irreversible mistake."
The death penalty exists in 38 of the 50 US states but is only regularly applied in a small handful of them, led by Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma. Those states which have put the death penalty on hold because of concerns about the inhumane aspects of lethal injection include California, Florida, Ohio, Arkansas, Delaware, South Dakota, Maryland and Missouri.