Monday, September 12, 2011

Looking at the death penalty county-by-county

Robert J. Smith, a visiting professor at the DePaul University College of Law has taken the analysis of death sentences across the country to an entirely new level. He authored a paper that will be in an upcoming issue of the Boston University Law Review tracking death sentences by county.

While Texas has a reputation for lining 'em up and mowing 'em down, the reality is that 220 of the 254 counties in Texas issued no death sentences between 2004-2009. Over that period, 19 counties imposed a death sentence only one time. Of the remaining 15 counties that imposed more than one death sentence over that period, only four counties sentenced defendants to die at a rate of more than one a year.

For anyone practicing in Harris County, these results should not come as a surprise. According to Professor Smith's research, these are the four counties that lead the state in death sentences:

  • Harris (26)
  • Bexar (10)
  • Tarrant (10)
  • Dallas (8)

Texas isn't even the leader in ordering the murder of its own citizens. Los Angeles County imposed more death sentences (33) in 2009 that the entire state of Texas. Maricopa (AZ) County imposed more death sentences (37) that the entire state of Alabama.

Professor Smith's research shows that 10% of the nation's counties account for every death sentence issued between 2004-2009. Less than 1% of the nation's counties sentenced, on average, more than one person a year to death - accounting for 50% of all death sentences. Thirteen counties average more than two new death sentences a year - they accounted for 29% of all death sentences.
It is also important to track executions at the county level. The strongest remaining rationale for the continued Eight Amendment validity of capital punishment is its retributive effects; however, if counties sentence people to death that the states do not execute then the retributive function of the death penalty is diminished because the act of execution is not realized. -- Robert J. Smith, "The Geography of the Death Penalty and its Ramifications"
If we look at the number of executions carried out, however, Texas is far and away the leader in the number of state-sponsored murders committed between 2004-2009 with 134 executions, accounting for 45% of the executions carried out during that period. The State of Ohio was a distant second with 25 executions, accounting for 8% of the total.

If we look at the "efficiency" of the state killing machine, only four counties across the nation saw more than one of their death sentences carried out (on average) each year. Those counties are:

  • Harris (42)
  • Dallas (13)
  • Bexas (12)
  • Tarrant (11)

Here's one other little nugget to think about, in Florida, a jury can sentence a person to death by a majority vote of the jurors while Alabama only requires that 10 jurors agree to death in order to impose the death penalty. Alabama and Florida also permit judges to overrule jury recommendations and impose a death sentence anyway.

The death penalty is applied arbitrarily and capriciously. It doesn't undo the deed that led everyone to the courtroom. It only serves to give politicians and judges a platform to declare that they are tough on crime.

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