By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Capital punishment in the United States has moved into the slow lane, with the number of executions and new death sentences likely to hit lows not seen for more than 20 years.
The last two executions of the year are set to be carried out next week, with Texas scheduled to put convicted murderer Raphael Holiday to death on Wednesday and Georgia scheduled to execute convicted murderer Marcus Johnson on Thursday.
If those lethal injections proceed, there will have been 27 executions in the United States in 2015. That would be the least since 1991, before "a get tough on crime" movement swept the country and led executions to hit 98 in 1999, the highest since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
The death penalty, which is the law in 31 states, has been hit by the left and right in 2015. Court battles and a scramble to secure execution drugs after a sales ban a few years ago imposed by makers, mostly in Europe, have left about eight states, most notably Texas, Florida and Missouri, as those that conduct executions. In 1999, 20 states put people to death.
Last year nationwide, there were 73 new death sentences and that number is set to drop by at least a third this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Oklahoma, one of the most active death penalty states, has put a halt on executions after mistakes in protocols that led to a flawed execution in 2014 and the delivery of the wrong drug to the death chamber this year.
The high costs of prosecutions and the option of life in prison without the possibility of parole are also cited as major drivers for the decline.
The costs of a death penalty prosecution, with appeals, investigations and other items, can be at least double those of housing an inmate for life and are usually far higher, according to data cited by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsgroup that focuses on U.S. criminal justice.
DROP IN DEATH SENTENCES
Texas and Virginia have instituted changes in the way death penalty cases are taken through courts that have led to decreased prosecutions. Texas, with 530 executions, has put to death more inmates than any other state since the death penalty was reinstated and Virginia has executed the highest percentage of its death row inmates.
Those states have instituted reforms in recent years to provide more resources for death penalty defenses and increased their access to evidence.
"Both states have changed the way in which indigent capital defense is provided. Counsel makes a huge difference," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment but whose data is used by both sides in the debate.
So far this year, Texas has had three new death penalty convictions and is on track for its lowest number since the penalty was reinstated. Virginia has had no new death sentences. In 1999, Virginia had seven new sentences and Texas 48.
Due to the costs, many prosecutors have become more selective about taking capital punishment cases to trial.
Death penalty advocate Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School, said money should not be a factor.
"The death penalty should not be a utilitarian issue in terms of weighing the costs against the benefits, but rather an issue simply of justice, of who deserves it," he said.
Next year, voters in conservative Nebraska are set to approve or dismiss a move by Republican lawmakers, who this year made it the first Republican-controlled state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty.
The lawmakers said the state should get out of the death penalty process due to high costs and the unreliability of the government to carry out the process correctly.
Another Republican-controlled state, Arkansas, tried to resume executions this year after a 10-year hiatus but has been hit with lawsuits that could take years to settle over its protocols and choice of execution drugs.
"The long-term trends both for executions and for new death sentences show the death penalty in decline. There may be from time to time bumps both up and down but the long-term trend is clear," Dunham said.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by James Dalgleish)