THE YEAR 2002 saw an end to the dramatic decline in executions that took place during the previous two years in this country. According to data from the Death Penalty Information Center, the states put 71 convicts to death this year, up slightly from the 66 executions in 2001 but still markedly below the recent peak of 98 executions in 1999. For death penalty opponents cheered by the trend of decline -- a drop that coincided with new scrutiny of capital punishment prompted by DNA exonerations -- this year's uptick, though slight, may seem like a discouraging reversal. The reality is more complicated. Behind the increase in overall executions lies evidence of the continued marginalization of a punishment that should have been banned long ago.

Fewer states (13) conducted executions this year than in any year since 1993. Texas alone, which executed 33 people, accounted for nearly half the state-sponsored killing. The next state in number of executions, Oklahoma, put to death only seven people -- less than a quarter of Texas's total. Outside the South, where 61 of the executions took place, only three states (California, Ohio and Missouri) executed anyone. Moreover, the number of new death sentences has declined significantly, and the growth of death rows nationwide finally has leveled off. In other words, outside of a few states, the penalty remains in decline.

This trend of regional concentration of capital punishment augurs well for those who believe, as we do, that the death penalty should be abolished. Assembling a national consensus for eliminating it is impossible today. Policymakers in states such as Texas, Missouri and Virginia are committed to it, and most voters continue to support capital punishment. But if other states start permitting the death penalty to slip into disuse or nearly so, death no longer will seem so obvious an option for the criminal justice system. And if states with nominal death penalties begin striking them from their books -- a step none of the 38 death-penalty states has yet taken -- the isolation of those states that carry out executions will grow further. This irreversible punishment under the best of circumstances is capriciously applied and in many cases is a reckless gamble that guilt is certain. An array of states legally endorse its use, but that base is something of a mirage; a few states collectively account for the overwhelming majority of all executions. The more clearly isolated they become, the greater the pressure for reform will be.