By Corrie MacLaggan
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas this year executed more people than any other state -- 13 -- but that was the lowest number of people put to death in the Lone Star State in 15 years, according to the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit law firm that represents prisoners on death row.
This year's number is down from 17 executions in 2010 and 40 in the busiest year, 2000. There were eight new death sentences this year, the same as last year, which was the lowest number ever, the service said.
"These numbers show that Texans have a growing discomfort with the chronic problems that infect the death penalty system, including the risk of convicting an innocent person, the costs, and its disproportionate use against people of color," Kathryn Kase, interim executive director of Texas Defender Service, said in a news release on Thursday.
Nationwide, death penalty use is declining. Death sentences have dropped 75 percent since 1996, according to a report released on Thursday by the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. That report also said that there were 43 executions this year across the country, down 56 percent since 1999.
Dudley Sharp, a Houston activist who describes himself as pro-death penalty, said it was not surprising death sentences have dropped, because the nation's murder rate has fallen.
Polls show the majority of Americans support the death penalty, though that support has declined. The 2011 Gallup Poll found 61 percent of Americans support the death penalty, compared to 80 percent in 1994.
There are no more executions scheduled for this year nationwide. In Texas, six people are scheduled to be executed in January, February or March, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has been in that post 11 years, has presided over more executions than any other governor since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. He defended the use of the death penalty in Texas during a Republican presidential candidates' debate in California in September.
Texans "don't want you to commit those crimes against our citizens, and if you do, you will face the ultimate justice," Perry said during the debate.
Since 2005, 41 percent of people receiving death sentences in Texas have been African Americans, according to Texas Defender Service. About 12 percent of the Texas population is African American.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)