June 30, 2016
New report highlights huge role of a handful of local prosecutors on the size of death rows
This notable new report from Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project highlights the consequential role of just a handful of local prosecutors on the modern US death penalty. The report, titled "America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive The Death Penalty," gets started this way (with footnotes removed):
Last year, a journalist asked Dale Cox, then the District Attorney of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, about the wisdom of the death penalty in light of the recent exoneration of Glenn Ford, a man who spent thirty years on death row for a crime that he did not commit. Cox told the reporter: “I think we need to kill more people.” “Revenge,” he said, “brings to us a visceral satisfaction.” Between 2010 and 2015, Cox alone secured one-third of Louisiana’s death sentences.
Cox’s disproportionate use of the death penalty illustrates a point that Justice Stephen Breyer recently made. “It is now unusual to find capital punishment in the United States,” Breyer wrote, because “capital prosecutions are being pursued in only a few isolated counties.” There are more than 3,100 counties, 2,400 head prosecutors, and thousands of line prosecutors in America — yet only a tiny handful of prosecutors are responsible for a vastly disproportionate number of death sentences. The question that this disparity prompts is: Why?
This report analyzes the records of five of America’s deadliest head prosecutors. Three of them personally obtained over 35 death sentences each: Joe Freeman Britt in North Carolina, Bob Macy in Oklahoma, and Donnie Myers in South Carolina. These men shared an obsession with winning death sentences at almost any cost. For example, Joe Freeman Britt, who committed misconduct in more than 36% of his death penalty prosecutions, said: “Within the breast of each of us burns a flame that constantly whispers in our ear ‘preserve life, preserve life, preserve life at any cost.’ It is the prosecutor’s job to extinguish that flame.” The remaining two prosecutors, Lynne Abraham (Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania) and Johnny Holmes (Harris County, Texas), did not personally prosecute as many death penalty cases as the three men above, but nonetheless oversaw the imposition of death sentences against a staggering 108 and 201 people, respectively, during their terms.
Of these five prosecutors, only one — Donnie Myers — remains in office, and he plans to retire at the end of the year. One of the most remarkable findings from our research is the fact that once these prosecutors and their protégés left their positions, death sentences dramatically declined in these jurisdictions — a pattern that has only become clear in the years since their departures.
We also highlight five additional prosecutors who came very close to becoming members of this notorious group. These runners-up have egregious records in their own states, and like the prosecutors above, the striking drop in new death sentences that has occurred in their respective jurisdictions since their departures illustrates their outsized impact on the death penalty.
Unfortunately, the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing has continued beyond the tenure of these prosecutors. Over the past fifteen years, prosecutors have pursued far fewer capital cases and juries have returned far fewer death sentences than in years past. Indeed, in 2015, juries returned just 49 death sentences, the fewest in recent history. This number represents an 84.4% drop from the 1996 high of 315 death verdicts. However, in the increasingly small number of the counties that still actively sentence people to death, a handful of prosecutors dominate death-sentencing statistics.
In the final section of this report, we offer a snapshot of three active prosecutors who, if they continue on their current trajectories, may soon join the ranks of the deadliest prosecutors in America. Taken together, the profiles featured in this report demonstrate that the death penalty has been, and continues to be, a personality-driven system with very few safeguards against misconduct and frequent abuse of power, a fact that seriously undermines its legitimacy.
June 30, 2016 at 01:37 PM | Permalink
It may seem irrelevant, but Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940.
For one, it has mostly the same states in common. The quote quoted also has some of the same flavor and therefore seemingly the same motives could be in evidence.
Posted by: George | Jun 30, 2016 3:20:34 PM
Humorous, for the articles total lack of looking at proper causation.
About 2% of jurisdictions account for the majority of death sentencess, very often based upon high numbers of capital murders.No surprise.
In the past 15 years, capital murders have dropped about 60-80%, followed by huge reductions in death sentences, also, no surprise.
Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jul 1, 2016 8:22:42 AM
What the story left out.
What is, truly, remarkable, is how rare it is for prosecutors to seek the death penalty.
About 1% of all murderers receive a death sentence.
We execute about 0.2% of our murderers.
I suspect about 10% of murders are death eligible.
My guess is that the listed prosecutors sought the death penalty at a reasonable rate, in comparison to all capital murders in those jurisdictions.
As that crucial detail was left out of consideration in the article, we don't know.
Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jul 1, 2016 8:38:36 AM
White murderers are twice as likely to be executed as are black murderers
56% of those executed are white, 35% black
For the White–Black comparisons, the Black level is 12.7 times greater than the White level for homicide, 15.6 times greater for robbery, 6.7 times greater for rape, and 4.5 times greater for aggravated assault.
For the Hispanic- White comparison, the Hispanic level is 4.0 times greater than the White level for homicide, 3.8 times greater for robbery, 2.8 times greater for rape, and 2.3 times greater for aggravated assault.
For the Hispanic–Black comparison, the Black level is 3.1 times greater than the Hispanic level for homicide, 4.1 times greater for robbery, 2.4 times greater for rape, and 1.9 times greater for aggravated assault.
As robbery/murder is, by far, the most common death penalty eligible murder, the multiples will be even greater.
From 1977-2012, white death row murderers have been executed at a rate 41% higher than are black death row murderers, 19.3% vs 13.7%, respectively. ( Table 12, Executions and other dispositions of inmates sentenced to death, by race and Hispanic origin, 1977–2012, Capital Punishment 2012, Bureau of Justice Statistics, last edited 11/3/14)
"There is no race of the offender / victim effect at either the decision to advance a case to penalty hearing or the decision to sentence a defendant to death given a penalty hearing."
RACE & THE DEATH PENALTY: A REBUTTAL TO THE RACISM CLAIMS
Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jul 1, 2016 8:42:23 AM
I agree there is too much concentration on race by Amy Louise Wood. While she does acknowledge others were lynched her main focus is on race because the majority were Black. The motives were the same, however. I would submit they are similar to the motives of "Mike Ramos, the San Bernardino County District Attorney and a leading proponent of the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act." Whatever the moral judgment today, it is a fascinating look into the motives for punishment. Whether good, bad or indifferent is a matter of opinion.
Posted by: George | Jul 1, 2016 4:00:16 PM