One of the central elements in Pope John Paul II’s support for capital punishment as expressed in the Catechism’s section #2267, is that it should be rare, and this article from The New York Times indicates just how rare it really is.
On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that California’s use of capital punishment was unconstitutional because the system was excessively arbitrary.
The arbitrariness that United States District Court Judge Cormac Carney highlighted is not that too many prisoners are being executed with insufficient due process, but that prisoners on death row are rarely executed, and when executions do occur, it is only after a lengthy and unpredictable delay.
This is unconstitutional, he argues, because a system “where so many are sentenced to death but only a random few are actually executed” is so arbitrary as to violate the Eighth Amendment’s protections against “cruel and unusual punishments.”
Judge Carney’s ruling calls into question a delicate political equilibrium that allows the public both to demand that their lawmakers pledge fealty to the death penalty when running for election, while not actually having to stomach the enormous number of executions that a systematic program of capital punishment would entail. The result is that death penalty statutes remain on the books in most states as death row continues to expand, yet relatively few are actually executed.
Some numbers put all this in perspective. The F.B.I. reports there were 14,827 cases of homicide or non-negligent manslaughter in 2012, of which 11,298 occurred in jurisdictions that have the death penalty. Research indicates that around one-fifth to a quarter of these homicides were for capital-eligible crimes, suggesting there were around 2,500 capital-eligible homicides in 2012, which is both high by global standards and much lower than in previous decades.
Yet there were only 45 executions last year. When fewer than one in 50 capital-eligible homicides leads to the death chamber, it is clear that capital punishment is rare.