California Counties See Dramatic Decline in Death Sentences and Executions, Reflecting a Nationwide Trend

Death penalty cases are plummeting across California and the United States at large, including in five California counties that have traditionally seen the highest number of sentences for execution in the state. The results of the new report by the Death Penalty Information Center highlight increasing discretion by prosecutors and a growing reluctance to impose death sentences by juries.

In the past five years, the counties of Riverside, Los Angeles, Orange, Kern, and San Bernardino have led the way for death sentences in California. But Los Angeles only saw two this year, while Orange County saw one. Riverside, Kern, and San Bernardino have seen none so far in 2018. For the first time in more than four decades, no U.S. county has handed down more than two death sentences in a single year.

“The nationwide data reflects significantly greater reluctance by prosecutors and juries to seek and impose death sentences from a decade ago or even five years ago,” according to the report.

Capital cases are extremely expensive to try, notes Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin in an article from the Los Angeles Times. Hestrin, who describes himself as a “pro-death penalty” prosecutor has nonetheless earned a reputation for pursuing death penalty cases more cautiously than his predecessors. His county earned the dubious distinction of sending more people to death row than any other county in the nation in 2015 and 2017.

Similarly, in Los Angeles County, the decision to pursue a capital case undergoes multiple levels of scrutiny. L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey told the Times her office sought the death penalty in just 2.7% of murder cases that came up for review last year. All of them were scrutinized by a panel that examines the crimes’ surrounding circumstances to determine whether the death penalty is appropriate.

San Bernardino County Public Defender Chris Gardner says fewer juries are supporting capital punishment, meaning prosecutors are more reluctant to pursue a capital case.

According to The Death Penalty Information Center, Texas still leads the way when it comes to imposing and carrying out executions nationwide. A total of 25 people in eight states were executed in 2018, representing the fourth consecutive year of less than 30 executions being carried out in the U.S. Texas accounted for more than half of them (13).