RICHMOND, Va. — A prosecutor’s decision not to seek a death penalty for the man accused of abducting and killing a University of Virginia student is emblematic of capital punishment’s decline across the country and in the state that once operated one of the busiest execution chambers in the nation.

Virginia has sent only six people to death row in the last nine years after sending 40 over the previous eight years, according to statistics compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. As a result, the state only has eight inmates awaiting execution – down from a high of 57 in 1995 – and unless something changes, Jesse Matthew Jr. won’t be joining them.

Matthew is charged with first-degree murder in the death of 18-year-old Hannah Graham. He also is charged with abduction with intent to defile, which is the first of 15 offenses listed in state law that can elevate a murder count to capital murder.

Albemarle County’s chief prosecutor has declined to say specifically why Matthew, who is due in court for a hearing on pretrial matters Tuesday, was not charged with capital murder.

Matthew’s case, perhaps the most high-profile murder case in Virginia since the 2002 Washington-area sniper shootings that left 10 dead, is playing out as the death penalty is on the wane. Virginia has slipped from second to third nationally – behind Texas and Oklahoma – with 110 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. No executions are currently scheduled.

Legal experts say there are many reasons for the deceleration of the death penalty in Virginia, but perhaps the biggest is the establishment in 2004 of four regional capital defender offices staffed by attorneys and investigators who devote all their time to death penalty cases.

“In the past, an awful lot of people who ended up on death row had abysmal representation,” said Steve Northup, a lawyer and former executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “Prosecutors were able to take advantage. Now prosecutors know capital defendants are going to be well represented.”

It’s no coincidence, experts suggest, that the sharp downturn in death sentences began the year the capital defender offices opened. The year before, Virginia sent six people to death row. No more than two death sentences have been imposed in any year since.

Doug Ramseur, the central region’s capital defender, said one of the reasons more cases are being plea bargained “may be recognition that juries are giving out the death sentence less.” That’s due in part to a growing acceptance of life without parole as a reasonable alternative to death, Ramseur and other experts said.

“When a jury is assured a truly dangerous individual will never be released from prison, they feel more comfortable turning down a death penalty,” said Michael Stone, who succeeded Northup as head of the state’s leading anti-capital punishment organization.

Experts also say public opinion about the death penalty is shifting, partly because more than 150 people sentenced to die have been exonerated.