READ: Why Some Parts of U.S. Are Seeing an Explosion of Death Sentences

By Kenrya Rankin Aug 23, 2016

A new article from The New York Times Magazine explores why, even as use of the death penalty is on a national decline, some jurisdictions are still executing people at an alarming rate.

Emily Bazelon’s “Where The Death Penalty Still Lives,” posted today (August 23), follows the case of James Rhodes, a Black man who shot and killed 20-year-old Shelby Farah in a Metro PCS store in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2013 and may be sentenced to death. Jacksonville sits in Duval County—one of just 16 counties in the United States that have imposed five or more death sentences in the years since 2010. Check out some key passages below, then read the full story here.

On the declining use of the death penalty—and where it is still employed:
Twenty states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment. Four more have imposed a moratorium on executions. Of the 26 remaining states, only 14 handed down any death sentences last year, for a total of 50 across the country—less than half the number six years before. California, which issued more than one-quarter of last year’s death sentences, hasn’t actu­ally executed anyone since 2006. A new geography of capital punishment is taking shape, with just 2 percent of the nation’s counties now accounting for a majority of the people sitting on death row.

An even smaller fraction of these counties still imposes death sentences regularly. In June 2015, in the Supreme Court case Glossip v. Gross, which involved lethal injection, Justice Stephen Breyer noted in a dissent that only 15 counties—out of more than 3,000 across the United States—had imposed five or more new death sentences since 2010. The number rises to 16 counties if Breyer’s count is extended through the end of 2015. Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, a city of nearly 900,000 where Shelby Farah was killed, is among the 16.

On race and the application of the death penalty:
Breyer wrote that there is “convincing evidence” that innocent people have been executed in three states, and he described near-misses, with more than 100 exonerations on death row. He also laid out the proof that race affects who is selected for execution. The seminal study in the field, conducted in Georgia in the 1970s, found after controlling for many other factors that the death penalty was far more likely if a victim was White, especially if a defendant was Black. Research since then has confirmed the disparity in states across the country. “Racism is the historical force that has most deeply marked the American death penalty,” says Carol Steiker, a Harvard law professor and an author of the forthcoming book “Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment From Colonial Days to the Present.” …

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.”

On the situation on the ground in Duval County, Florida, and beyond:
Human rights groups say that [state attorney in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit Angela] Corey’s policies have disproportionately affected Black defendants. She has continued to charge juveniles as adults, moving more Black teenagers than White ones into the adult system, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. In a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, Judge Henry Davis, at the time the only Black judge on the local circuit court, called prosecutors’ decisions about which teenagers to charge as adults “basically arbitrary.” When Black children commit minor infractions and are eligible for civil citations, an alternative to arrest, they are less likely to receive them than eligible White children. Duval County’s population is 30 percent African-American. During Angela Corey’s tenure, 80 percent of the defendants sentenced to death were Black, compared with 73 percent of those arrested for murder. In July, when asked at a forum hosted by Black lawyers in Jacksonville if the local justice system was fair to Black residents, Corey said, “There is no disparity on the basis of race.” …

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.”

Read the full, engaging story here.