Use of the Death Penalty in California Declines in Key Counties

Use of the death penalty in California has declined in recent years. There have been no executions in six years, and the number of death sentences in 2011 dropped sharply from previous years. District Attorney Mark Peterson of Contra Costa County said his office tries to be smart on crime rather than automatically seeking death. “People here want us to be tough on crime, but they want us to be smart on crime,” he said. “Even though we might personally believe a defendant deserves the death penalty, it doesn’t do us any good to take a hard stance if the community isn’t going to support it. The statistics bear out that the number of death penalty cases have gone down over the years,” Peterson said. “It’s been almost two years without a death verdict and for the ninth largest county in the state, I think that says a lot. For the vast majority of eligible cases, we don’t seek the death penalty,” he said. A recent Field Poll found that while support for the death penalty in California continues, there is also a growing tendency of voters to favor life in prison without parole over capital punishment. Elisabeth Semel, professor of law at Berkeley Law School, explained that public opinion can influence the decision of prosecutors. She said, “Prosecutors are increasingly willing to use the punishment of life without the possibility of parole and recognize that it is more acceptable to the general public. The decreasing popularity of the death penalty … has an influence in the decision.” Laurie Levenson, professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, agreed:The whole tenor in both the criminal justice system and in the community has changed in regard to the death penalty,” she said. “Prosecutors realize, in the end, it might not be worth it.”

Two decades ago, Alameda County sent five defendants to death row. So far in 2012, Alameda’s District Attorney, Nancy O’Malley, has not sought the death penalty against any defendant. Since taking office, she has sought the death penalty only once, and that decision was reversed just before trial. In the same time, there have been more than 30 defendants who were eligible for capital punishment.

(P. Rosynsky, “Prosecutors’ use of the death penalty waning in Alameda County,” Mercury News, August 3, 2012). See New Voices and Death Sentencing.