The death penalty and California: 2017 in review


It’s easy to forget that California is a state with the death penalty on its books, and it’s not hard to see why. The state has not executed anyone in 12 years as January 2018.

Nevertheless, California has sentenced nearly 1,000 people to death since the current system was adopted in 1978. There have been 13 executions in that time, and we currently house more people under sentences of death than any other jurisdiction in the Western Hemisphere.

2017 saw several important developments in terms of the state’s administration of this costly, failed system. This article covers a few that we found to be the most important.

Death sentences in California remained near historic lows, but still outpaced other states. Riverside issued more new death sentences than any other county in the state or the nation. There has not been an execution in more than a decade, but efforts to resume capital punishment continued throughout 2017. Finally, there were several developments in important cases that underscored how broken and unjust this system truly is, and Death Penalty Focus kept up the fight to prevent executions and end this system once and for all.


California death sentences are near historic lows, but still lead the nation

  • California’s counties issued 11 new death sentences last year. This was a slight increase in the number of sentences from 2016, but it reflects a downward trend since the current death penalty system was adopted in 1978. While California leads the nation in the annual number of new death sentences, that number is historically low—the second lowest since 1978.
  • While it’s low for the state, it can still be seen as out of step with the rest of the country. For example, Texas—which used to be seen as capital punishment’s capital—recorded only four death sentences last year. That’s only one more than the number handed down in 2015 and in 2016. [ Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty ]
  • Seven California counties issued death sentences in 2017. California is home to some of the top death sentencing counties in the United States. While those like San Bernardino and Orange have remained steady with recent trends, Los Angeles saw a 75 percent drop from 2016 to 2017.
  • Riverside County, however, held the dubious distinction of issuing five death sentences, the most of any county in California or the nation. Riverside DA Mike Hestrin is a vocal supporter of the death penalty, and campaigned for Prop. 66 in 2016—the initiative that promised to “speed up” the death penalty without (somehow) increasing costs and case errors. [ The Desert Sun ]
  • It might be too early to tell, but the declining number of death sentences could reflect a growing awareness among California prosecutors that the death penalty does not serve the interests of equal justice and public safety. District attorneys such as San Francisco’s George Gascon have said that they will not pursue the death penalty, as have several candidates running for their county offices in 2018.
  • Death sentences are down nationwide, in any case. There were 39 last year, a slight uptick from the 31 issued in 2016, but still the second-lowest number in the “modern” era of the death penalty. That’s down from a peak of 98 new death sentences in 1999. [ Death Penalty Information Center ]

No executions, but resumption efforts continue

  • California has not had an execution in 12 years, as of January 2018.
  • Due to concerns over the state’s use of lethal injection, there has been a federal moratorium in place since late 2006.
  • As of January 2018, it is unclear if, or when, executions could resume. Abolitionists briefly celebrated as a lethal injection protocol was rejected by state administrators, but the moment was short–lived as initial court rulings allowed Prop 66 to take effect. [ Death Penalty Focus; SF Gate ]
  • Experts disagree about what the rulings might mean, but the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court expects additional challenges. [ Capitol Public Radio ]
  • Many are looking to the role that Governor Brown could play. He has not recently spoken about the issue, but he was a committed abolitionist in in the past. [ Los Angeles Times ]
  • A new governor will be elected in November of this year. Five of the six declared candidates have declared their opposition to the death penalty, including all four Democratic candidates and one Republican. [ Death Penalty Focus; San Francisco Chronicle ]

A few notable case developments in 2017

  • After six years of proceedings, the deadliest mass shooting in the history of Orange County resulted in eight consecutive sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for the shooter. Prosecutorial misconduct, and the discovery of an illegal jailhouse informant ring led the judge to intervene in what had originally been called a “slam dunk” death penalty case. Survivors and family members of the victims supported the outcome and an end to the trial. [ Death Penalty Focus; OC Register ]
  • There are currently around 20 people on death row who may not have pending appeals, meaning if executions were to resume, they would presumably be the first people eligible to be put to death by the state. Several of them may be innocent, however, and Kevin Cooper’s case has attracted renewed attention. [ Infographic via Death Penalty Focus; Free Kevin Cooper; New York Times; CNN’s Death Row Stories ]
  • A troubling development occurred in another “late stage” case when it was revealed that LA County authorities destroyed evidence that had been collected before the trial of Scott Pinholster. Pinholster maintains his innocence, and the evidence could have shown that another person was responsible for the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. [ Los Angeles Times ]

Milestones and anniversaries

  • As we mentioned, it has been 12 years since the last execution in California.
  • According to data from the Death Penalty Information Center, California has issued 971 death sentences since the state’s current death penalty system was adopted in 1978.
  • There are currently 746 people on death row in the state, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
  • April 21, 2017 marked 25 years since the execution of Robert Alton Harris—the first of 13 people executed in the “modern” era of the California’s death penalty. [ Death Penalty Focus ]

Death Penalty Focus keeps the fight going

  • 2017 was a tough year for everyone: from the victory of Prop. 66 at the end of 2016, to natural disasters taxing our resources and resilience, to an administration seeking to roll back decades of progress–at times, one might have felt like all hope was lost.
  • But while it may be a cliché, as the old saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
  • In May 2017, we hosted a spectacular event in LA County with Sen. Bernie Sanders. He spoke forcefully in opposition to state executions and in support of our work.
  • Along with Witness to Innocence and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, we partnered with LUSH Cosmetics to bring the message that “Death ≠ Justice” to their 200 storefronts across the United States, reaching countless people who had never been confronted with the issue.
  • We held a series of events to raise awareness, and community meetings to strengthen our coalition, in places like Orange County, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose, and more.
  • We commemorated the life of a hero of the movement with a memorial event in San Francisco.
  • We published 12 issues of our celebrated monthly newsletter, The Focus, featuring original journalistic and editorial content about the death penalty and the people it harms.
  • We partnered with California Attorneys for Criminal Justice to challenge Prop. 66 in court with an amicus curiae brief.
  • We launched the search for our next executive director.

Helpful links

  • Subscribe to our newsletter, The Focus, and automatically sign up for our action alerts in the process.
  • Donate to support the work of Death Penalty Focus.
  • Read the Death Penalty Information Center’s 2017 Annual Report.
  • Check out The Marshall Project’s predictions about the death penalty in 2018.
  • Get to know California’s District Attorneys before the November elections.

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