Who’s Really Using the Death Penalty?

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Just 2 percent of U.S. counties are responsible for 52% of all executions and 56% of the country's current death row population(Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

Just 2 percent of U.S. counties are responsible for 52% of all executions and 56% of the country’s current death row population(Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

We know that, in the U.S., there are large differences in the enthusiasm with which the death penalty is applied. Currently, there are 32 states that still allow the use of the death penalty: some use it a lot, some barely at all. But what is less well known is the disparity that exists within states, at the county level.

The Death Penalty Information Center has released a report which illustrates these disparities. For example, out of the 3,143 counties in the U.S., 62, or just 2% (representing just 15.6% of the total U.S. population), are responsible for 52% of all executions and 56% of the current U.S. death row population. Even in states known for their vigorous use of the death penalty, many counties have never handed down a death sentence. Nationally, an overwhelming majority (85%) of counties have never produced an execution.

These disparities have serious implications for fairness (the Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is supposed to be applied based on the severity of the crime, not its location), and for taxpayers, who must pay to support the criminal justice money pit of capital punishment even though the majority of them live in counties where the death penalty is largely irrelevant.

In many of the heaviest use counties, high octane pursuit of executions has been accompanied by underfunded defense lawyers, high reversal rates, and prosecutorial misconduct.

  • Philadelphia County is responsible for 88 death sentences – the 3rd most of any county in the U.S. – but pays defense lawyers less than any other county in Pennsylvania.
  • In Orleans Parish in Louisiana, one DA – Harry Connick, Sr. – accounted for four wrongful convictions that led to death row exonerations. All 4 cases involved the abuse of withholding evidence from the defense (known as a Brady violation). This prompted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to write that “inattention to Brady was standard operating procedure at the District Attorney’s Office.”
  • And in Arizona, Andrew Thomas, a District Attorney in Maricopa County (4th most death sentences in the U.S.) was disbarred in 2012 for “a reckless, four-year campaign of corruption and power abuse.”

With its wrongful convictions, racial bias, and botched executions, the U.S. death penalty, restarted in 1976, has itself been a reckless 37-year campaign of corruption and power abuse. And while its use has been limited to a small minority of counties, that does not make it any less cruel, only more unusual.

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