The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All

Executive Summary Up

Contrary to the assumption that the death penalty is widely practiced across the country, it is actually the domain of a small percentage of U.S. counties in a handful of states. The burdens created by this narrow but aggressive use, however, are shifted to the majority of counties that almost never use it.

The disparate and highly clustered use of the death penalty raises serious questions of unequal and arbitrary application of the law. It also forces the jurisdictions that have resisted the death penalty for decades to pay for a costly legal process that is often marred with injustice.

Only 2% of the counties in the U.S. have been responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976. Likewise, only 2% of the counties are responsible for the majority of today’s death row population and recent death sentences. To put it another way, all of the state executions since the death penalty was reinstated stem from cases in just 15% of the counties in the U.S. All of the 3,125 inmates on death row as of January 1, 2013 came from just 20% of the counties.

Each decision to seek the death penalty is made by a single county district attorney, who is answerable only to the voters of that county. Nevertheless, all state taxpayers will have to bear the substantial financial costs of each death penalty case, and some of the costs will even be borne on a national level.

The counties that use the death penalty the most have some of the highest reversal rates and many have been responsible for errors of egregious injustice. As their cases are reversed, more money will be spent on retrials and further appeals. For example:

  • Maricopa County in Arizona had four times the number of pending death penalty cases as Los Angeles or Houston on a per capita basis. The District Attorney responsible for this aggressive use was recently disbarred for misconduct.
  • Philadelphia County, with the third largest number of inmates on death row in the country, ranked lowest in the state in paying attorneys representing those inmates.
  • During the tenure of one district attorney in New Orleans, four death row inmates were exonerated and freed because of prosecutorial misconduct, bringing a stinging rebuke from four Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some states have recently chosen to opt out of this process altogether, greatly limiting their obligations for its high costs and disrepute. As the death penalty is seen more as the insistent campaign of a few at tremendous cost to the many, more states may follow that course.

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Additional Information Up

An infographic with data from the report from the Huffington Post, October 10, 2013:

(Click on image to nav­i­gate to orig­i­nal article.)