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August 25, 2016

New York Times magazine takes deep dive into "Where the Death Penalty Still Lives"

In this post earlier this week, I highlighted the new Fair Punishment Project report taking close look at the small number of US counties still actively utilizing the death penalty.  That report,  Too Broken to Fix: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties, has justifiably received a good deal of national and local media coverage.  But the biggest and most impressive discussion of the report and the various issues it raises appears in this week's forthcoming New York Times magazine via this lengthy feature article under this full headline: "Where the Death Penalty Still Lives: As capital punishment declines nationwide, a tiny fraction of the country generates an alarming number of death sentences. What this new geography tells us about justice in America."   Here are a few excerpts of a great read from the pen of Emily Bazelon:

What separates the 16 counties where the death penalty regularly endures from the rest of the country, where it is fading away?  The 16 counties span seven states in the South and the West.  They include major cities, like Los Angeles, Houston, Las Vegas and Phoenix; suburban areas like Orange County, Calif., and San Bernardino, Calif.; and semirural pockets like Mobile County, Ala., and Caddo Parish, La.  Some are dominated by Demo­cratic voters, some are dominated by Republicans and a few are evenly split.  Many of the counties have high numbers of murders, but so do plenty of other places that don’t use the death penalty.

Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, along with a research team at Harvard Law School called the Fair Punishment Project, has been trying to identify the factors that explain why certain counties still regularly impose capital punishment.  They have been delving into the death-penalty records of the 16 counties and comparing them with those of other jurisdictions and have found three key features that often characterize the 16. “The people who get the death penalty tend to live in places with overaggressive prosecutors and defense lawyers who aren’t up to the task of defending against them — that’s a double whammy,” says Robert J. Smith, who directs the project. “Then in some places there’s a third element: a cultural legacy of racial bias and exclusion. It’s just not true that we execute the people who are the most culpable.”...

Black jurors are relatively absent from death-penalty trials, which can affect their outcomes.  “Research shows the mere presence of blacks on capital juries — on the rare occasions they are seated — can mean the difference between life and death,” Melynda J. Price, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, wrote in a 2009 law review article. But to be seated on a death-penalty case, a prospective juror must say he or she could vote for execution without substantial moral or religious qualms, in keeping with the test set by the Supreme Court.  Since African-Americans oppose capital punishment at a higher rate than whites, fewer of them can serve.

Prosecutors also can take steps to keep them off juries.  In Caddo Parish, La., which is among the 16 counties, prosecutors excluded black jurors at three times the rate of white jurors between 2003 and 2012, according to Reprieve Australia, a legal-assistance group.  “You see all-white or nearly all-white juries at capital murder trials where you’d never expect it given the diversity of the population,” says Smith of the Fair Punishment Project.

Florida and Alabama also diminish the influence of any juror who wants to spare a defendant’s life.  They are the only states that don’t require a unanimous vote for execution. Between 2010 and 2015, there was only one unanimous verdict among 13 death sentences in Jefferson County and Mobile County, both on the list of 16.  Of the 24 death sentences Angela Corey has won, three came from unanimous juries. The jury split 8 to 4 in eight cases, and in three others, the vote was 7 to 5.

Many of the 16 counties where the death penalty is prevalent have a criminal-justice system with a power structure similar to Duval’s.  Whites retain control to a striking degree, despite the presence of sizable numbers of African-Americans or Latinos.  This phenomenon is the most pronounced within the former borders of the Confederacy. “Alabama has 19 appellate judges,” says Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which represents clients on death row in the state.  “They are all white.  Fourteen percent of the trial judges are black.  Out of 42 elected prosecutors in the state, one is black.”  Stevenson says that by seeking numerous death sentences, prosecutors in the Deep South “hark back to the history of using the criminal-justice system to maintain racial control.”  Mobile County is the site of the last known lynching in the country, in 1981.  (After a jury deadlocked in the trial of a black man accused of killing a white police officer, two Ku Klux Klan members abducted a black 19-year-old who had nothing to do with the death, cut his throat and hanged his body from a tree.)  Jefferson had the state’s highest total of lynchings between 1877 and 1950.  In Caddo Parish, men have been hanged outside the courthouse, where a monument to the Confederacy still stands on the front lawn.

August 25, 2016 at 11:31 PM | Permalink

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