By Anna Arceneaux
An annual survey conducted by the Death Penalty Information Center shows a significant decline in 2018 in the use of the death penalty nationwide. This is as it should be — the nation is turning away from the barbaric practice of killing its people as punishment.
In 2018, 25 people were executed, marking the fourth year in a row the United States has had fewer than 30 executions. That’s down dramatically from the peak of 98 executions we saw in 1999. Death sentencing, too, has followed this downward trend. Just over 40 people were sentenced to death across the country — compared to the record of 315 people sent to death row in 1996.
The most monumental stride forward transpired in Washington, when the state became the 20th to reject the death penalty outright. The Washington Supreme Court in October ruled that the state’s death penalty was tainted by racial bias and arbitrariness, and thus prohibited under the state constitution.
Thirteen other states have effectively abandoned the death penalty in practice, though the law allowing the use of capital punishment remains on the books. The governors of Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Colorado continue to bar executions on their watch, and 10 other states, along with the federal government and the military, have not had an execution in over 10 years.
Public support for the death penalty hovers at its all-time low. Fewer than 50 percent of Americans believe the death penalty is fair. The reasons are varied. Perhaps the most stirring one is that it is an irrevocable sentence in a broken system, a shameful relic of our history of lynching and racial terror.
Public support has also dwindled because people have recognized that innocent people remain on death row across the country. Two men were exonerated and released from death row in 2018, bringing the total exonerations in the modern death penalty period, from the time the death penalty was reinstated in 1972, to a staggering 164. Vicente Benavides Figueroa was exonerated in California after almost 26 years on death row. Clemente Javier Aguirre was released from prison after 12 years on Florida’s death row.
The record in 2018 also shows that the use of the death penalty in the modern era remains isolated to a handful of states, highlighting its arbitrariness.
Jurors imposed the death penalty in just over 40 cases across the country. The great majority of these new death sentences were handed down in courts in four states: Texas, Florida, California, and Ohio. No one was sent to death row in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Virginia — states that have historically led in death sentencing.
Executions were also geographically isolated. Of the 25 executions this year, 13 were in Texas alone. Only seven other states carried out an execution this year. While Texas remains the country’s top executioner, jurors and a wave of reform-minded district attorneys in the Lone Star State are also turning away from the death penalty. Texas jurors rejected the death penalty in eight cases that ultimately ended in six life sentences and two mistrials.
Only one person was sentenced to death in Harris County, which includes Houston — a remarkable drop from years past. Harris County sentenced so many people to death in the past that it was known as “the capital of capital punishment.” Because so many of these people still await execution on Texas’ death row, it is still the county responsible for most of Texas’ death row population.
In another example of the changing tide, in February, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott granted clemency to Thomas Whitaker. This was the first grant of clemency in Texas in over a decade. It came because the surviving victim and family member of Whitaker’s crime did not want to see him executed.
Despite all the good news, the death penalty continues to be — and will remain — marred by racial disparities. All seven people sentenced to death in Texas this year were people of color. Gov. Abbott rejected clemency for Christopher Young, a Black man convicted of killing a man of South Asian descent — despite the fact that, like Whitaker (who is white, as were his victims), the victim’s family member had called for mercy.
So while reform is brewing, it is inconsistent, and it is costing lives and reinforcing unequal justice.
With these developments in mind, in 2019 we must continue to expose the injustices of this punishment and fight it until we can finally say that the death penalty is gone for good. For the 2,500 people who remain on death row, that cannot come soon enough.
Anna Arceneaux is a Senior Staff Attorney with ACLU Capital Punishment Project