A Handful of Counties Are Keeping the Death Penalty Alive

Fewer than 1 percent of counties in the U.S. still frequently impose death sentences, a new report finds.

A woman holds a sign outside the Sarasota County Justice Center during the first day of the penalty phase for killer Joseph Smith in Sarasota, Florida, on Nov. 28, 2005. Smith’s death sentence was appealed, then ultimately upheld by the Florida State Supreme Court in 2014. (Photo: Tim Boyles/Getty Images)

Oct 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

The death penalty, it seems, is slowly dying. Public support for capital punishment in the U.S. is lower today than it has been in more than four decades: 49 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for defendants convicted of murder versus 80 percent in 1994. Amid that declining support, a handful of counties across the country are clinging to the practice and regularly doling out death sentences. In 2015, death sentences were issued in only 33 out of the 3,143 counties in the U.S. Just 16 of those 33 imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015, according to a report published Wednesday by Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project.

“This is about overzealous prosecutors paired with severely inadequate defense lawyering in most of the counties,” Rob Smith, director of the Fair Punishment Project, told TakePart. Among the counties were Pinellas, Florida; Jefferson, Alabama; and San Bernardino, California.

The report is the second half of the project’s in-depth examination of where the use of the death penalty is concentrated and why. Focusing on eight counties in Texas, Alabama, Florida, and California in the newest report, researchers reviewed all the appellate opinions of the states’ supreme courts between 2010 and 2015 to uncover commonalities.

In the counties that sentenced five or more people to death over this five-year period, the report’s authors noted persistent patterns of racial bias, ineffective defense lawyers, and “overzealous” prosecutors. The researchers also found that more than half of the defendants sentenced to death in these counties had significant mental impairments. Seventy-three of the defendants were people of color, and 46 percent were black.

“It’s not an accident that many of these counties have had ongoing struggles with racial fairness and equality, and those are the same places that are holding on to the death penalty,” said Smith. Alabama’s Jefferson County is home to Birmingham, the site of some of the civil rights movement’s most influential protests. Florida, which is home to four counties on the report’s list, is the state with the third-largest number of hate groups in the country, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, including active Ku Klux Klan and black separatist groups. Florida falls behind Texas and California, both of which also have counties on this list.

Smith also noted that people of color are routinely excluded from juries in these jurisdictions, interfering “with the ability of communities most impacted by violence to take part in governing themselves.” The dismissal of black jurors from juries that decide cases involving black defendants is a national problem and directly contributes to the racial disparities in death sentences illustrated by this report.

Alabama and Florida share another distinction when it comes to juries: They are the only two states in the country that permit nonunanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases. Five of the 16 counties studied by the Fair Punishment Project were in those states, and of the 71 cases reviewed in those counties, 89 percent had nonunanimous verdicts. Until August, Delaware also allowed nonunanimous verdicts in capital trials. On Aug. 2, the state’s supreme court ruled the statute that allowed such verdicts unconstitutional and struck it down.

“One of the biggest reasons you see so many death sentences in those counties is because they don’t require a unanimous cross-section of the community to agree,” said Smith. “Juries sometimes debate these cases for less than an hour because they don’t need to reach unanimity to decide if someone lives or dies.”

Of all the states that are home to the counties studied in these reports, Florida boasts the most. The state’s Duval, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, and Pinellas counties lead Florida’s death sentencing practice. Since the state resumed executions in the 1970s, ninety-two people have been executed, and 26 have been exonerated, according to Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

“No one knows how many more innocent people are on death row, or God forbid, have been executed,” Elliott said in a statement.