Alabama ranks second in the nation for the number of executions it conducted in 2011 and is tied for third in death sentences imposed this year, statistics compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center show.
“Alabama is one of the leading death penalty states in the country,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based DPIC. “It is a leader in executions and death sentences, both in absolute numbers and per capita.”
Alabama ranks 23rd nationally in population but has the country’s fifth-largest death-row population. Its 55 executions since 1976, when a four-year national moratorium on the death penalty was lifted, puts Alabama sixth among states allowing capital punishment.
Alabama put six murderers to death by lethal injection in 2011, accounting for 14 percent of the 43 executions nationwide, according to the annual year-end report by the clearinghouse on death penalty statistics.
Texas, with 13 executions this year, led the nation. No more executions are set this year in any of the 34 states that allow capital punishment, the DPIC said.
Nationally in 2011, the number of executions dropped slightly, continuing a general decline since 2000. The 43 executions in the U.S. were three fewer than in 2010 and a 49 percent drop from 2000, when 85 killers were put to death.
Alabama’s eight death sentences in 2011 puts it behind only Florida (13) and California (10), according to the DPIC. Arizona and Texas also reported eight death sentences in 2011.
“Death sentencing in Alabama is down somewhat from the 1990s,” Dieter said. “But it has not dropped as dramatically as in other states, and it still remains high for a state its size. Alabama still shows a strong commitment to the death penalty.”
The number of new death sentences nationally dropped 30 percent versus the 2010 level.
Through mid-December, 78 death sentences were imposed nationally. That is a 65 percent reduction since 2000, when 224 murderers were condemned, according to the DPIC.
Murderers were sentenced to death this year in both Jefferson and Shelby counties. They were:
Anthony Lane, who robbed and shot to death Frank Wright in Birmingham in 2009 as the Indiana man, in town to do contract work, was washing his car with plans to pick up his wife at the airport.
Bart Wayne Johnson, who shot to death Philip David, a Pelham police officer who had pulled him over on Interstate 65 in Shelby County for speeding in 2009.
This year marks the first time since 1976 that fewer than 100 murderers were sentenced to death in the United States, DPIC statistics show.
Alabama is seeing a drop in death sentences, statistics show. After averaging 13 per year from 1977 to 2007, judges have condemned an average of roughly nine murderers over the last four years.
“This year, the use of the death penalty continued to decline by almost every measure,” Dieter said. “Whether it’s concern about unfairness, executing the innocent, the high costs of the death penalty, or the general feeling that the government just can’t get it right, Americans moved further away from capital punishment in 2011.”
Polls conducted this year show capital punishment still has strong but diminishing support in the U.S.
A national Gallup Poll about the death penalty, which offered no alternatives, found 61 percent supporting capital punishment, compared to 80 percent in 1994, the DPIC reported.
A CNN poll giving respondents a choice between death and life without parole had 50 percent favoring the lesser sentence and 48 percent choosing death, the DPIC report said.
In 2011, Illinois became the fourth state in four years to abolish the death penalty. Oregon’s governor announced this month no executions would take place in that state before he leaves office in 2015.
Despite in-state abolition efforts, Alabama’s commitment to capital punishment remains strong among politicians and voters, said Natalie Davis, a political science professor at Birmingham Southern University and a public-opinion expert.
As long as Alabama continues to allow less-than-unanimous jury verdicts calling for death by lethal injection and grants elected judges the right to override those recommendations, state death penalty statistics will remain high, she said.
“If you’re running for a circuit court judgeship and you say you oppose the death penalty, you’ll never get elected,” Davis said. “It’s a deal-breaker for so many voters when it comes to election time.”