Just 16 counties are fuelling America's use of the death penalty

Just 16 counties in the US are driving the use of the death penalty, despite a nationwide movement away from the sentence, a new report from the Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project has found.

The “outlier counties” — scattered throughout Alabama, Florida, California, Louisiana, Nevada, Texas, and Arizona — have each imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015, a major departure from the overall downward trend in death penalty use since it peaked in 1996 with 315.

The report determined that the reasons behind the counties’ deviation can be boiled down to three “structural failures” that they tend to have in common: overzealous prosecutors, inadequate defence lawyers, and racial bias and exclusion.

The outcomes of these sentencings, according to the report, regularly resulted in wrongful convictions and excessive punishment of young people, or those who suffer from mental illnesses or disabilities.

“Studies have shown [death sentences] to be extremely expensive, prone to error, applied in discriminatory ways, and imposed upon the most vulnerable, rather than the most culpable people,” the report said.

For instance, in Maricopa County, Arizona, the report found that a disproportionate 57% of those sentenced to death between 2010 and 2015 were people of colour. The county is notable for drawing national scrutiny in recent days — its sheriff, Joe Arpaio, was referred by a federal judge for criminal contempt charges last week after he allegedly failed to abide by a court order meant to prevent his office from racially profiling Latinos.

Arpaio has been accused by the Department of Justice of overseeing the “worst pattern of racial profiling by a law enforcement agency in US history.”

The report also looked into Duval County, Florida, where 87% of its death sentences since 2010 have been used on African-American defendants. The report attributed much of the county’s outlier status to State Attorney Angela Corey, who is currently campaigning for re-election and was dubbed the “cruelest prosecutor in America” last week by The Nation magazine.

Corey slammed the Fair Sentencing Project’s statistics as being unfair in an interview with the Florida Times-Union on Tuesday.

The study’s focus on 16 counties hearkens back to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent in the 2015 Glossip v. Gross case, in which he pegged geography as being a major factor in determining which defendants are sentenced to death.

“Within a death penalty State, the imposition of the death penalty heavily depends on the county in which a defendant is tried,” Breyer wrote.

The report, released Tuesday, examined just eight of the 16 counties, while a second report detailing the remaining eight is set to be released in September.

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