The execution of Jose Antonio Jimenez in Florida late Thursday marked the 25th such killing this year, up two from last year. That makes 2018 the fourth year in a row in which fewer than 30 people were executed in the United States. That, incongruously enough, is progress. Since the U.S. Supreme Court resurrected the death penalty in 1976, some 1,490 people have died at the hands of state executioners, an average of 42 a year since the practice resumed in earnest in 1984.
More significantly, says the Death Penalty Information Center in its annual report on capital punishment, the number of new death sentences being imposed is also relatively low; at 42 sentences this year, it’s the third-lowest since capital punishment was reinstated. And more than half of those came in just four states, including — to our shame — here in California, the state with the largest death row in the nation and a system so dysfunctional that federal courts have refused to let corrections officials used the death chamber in San Quentin for more than a decade. Five more people were sentenced to death in California this year.
In a sense, though, even that is progress. Riverside — the state’s per-capita leader in death sentences — issued none this year after sentencing five people to death in 2017. Los Angeles County juries sentenced just two people to death. Statewide, the five new sentences are the lowest in the modern era. The declining imposition of death sentences followed voter approval in 2016 of Proposition 66, which is intended to reduce appeals and speed up executions for the condemned. So while voters said they want the process to work faster, juries — and prosecutors — are putting fewer people into the system.
Capital punishment is a national disgrace, even though it was employed in only a relative handful of states. In fact, that so few states, and so few counties within those states, hand down death sentences is proof that the system is arbitrary. A crime that might get you the death penalty in one county might not in the neighboring county, even though both counties operate under the same state laws. Death sentences are meted out disproportionately to the poor and minorities. Exonerations are increasing as prosecutorial misconduct and erroneous testimony get uncovered.