In the midst of a noisy debate over capital punishment in the US, a quiet change may have occurred -- the number of new death penalty sentences being imposed each year has dropped by nearly half.
Juries, perhaps fearful of putting an innocent person to death, are looking more closely at life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors heedful of the cost death penalty trials entail and the minefield of legal challenges that can get them reversed in court may be choosing their cases more carefully.
"The point we're coming to in America is that we are going to keep refining and refining and refining those who are eligible for the death penalty," said Josh Marquis, the prosecutor for Clatsop County in Astoria, Oregon.
"It should really be reserved for people like (Oklahoma City bomber) Timothy McVeigh," added Marquis, a death penalty proponent who chairs the Capital Litigation Committee of the National District Attorneys Association.
According to US Bureau of Justice Statistics, an average of 296 people were added to death row each year from 1994 to 2000. The actual number of new death sentences in 2000 was 226, well below the average, and the beginning of a decline. The number fell to 155 in 2001, the lowest recorded since 1973.
The bureau says it has not yet compiled statistics for last year. But Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says his analysis of the total death row population numbers leads him to believe that last year's figure will again be around 155.
"There is a reluctance by juries," he said. "The states we've heard from say that cases where the death penalty is sought are more likely to get a life sentence now. For one thing, juries are being told about this option."
Three US Supreme Court decisions since 1993 have said jurors must be told that life without the possibility of parole is available as an alternative to the death penalty, if the state involved has such a law on its books, Dieter said.
Thirty-six of the 38 states which have death penalty laws also have life no-parole statutes, he said.
"Our sense is that there is also hesitation among juries because of all the stories about innocence or unfair treatment [of those on death row]. For whatever reason they're returning more life sentences," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project said in a recent report that 108 people have been released from death row since 1973 after evidence of their innocence was uncovered.
That problem was painfully obvious in Illinois where investigations found 13 innocent prisoners awaiting execution.
Former Illinois Governor George Ryan imposed a still-standing moratorium on executions, and before leaving office early this year emptied the state's death row, granting clemency to 167 condemned prisoners and pardoning four others who had been convicted of murder.
His move touched off a renewed debate over capital punishment in the US, which is alone among western democracies in still carrying it out.
Illinois politicians revamped the state's laws but Ryan's successor has yet to decide on the changes. They include such measures as reducing the number of factors that can trigger the death penalty and allowing judges to file dissents when they disagree with a jury's imposition of the death penalty, making it easier for a prisoner to appeal.