OUTLIER COUNTIES: Maricopa, Arizona—"Outrageously Exploited Power," "Crippled" Defense, and Five Exonerations

Maricopa County, Arizona imposed 28 death sentences between 2010 and 2015 and, as described in a BuzzFeed news analysis of a new report on outlier death penalty practices, "stands out for its stark examples of the problems found across the counties that most often sentence people to death." The report, Too Broken to Fix, by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project, studied the nation's 16 most prolific death-sentencing counties and found that Maricopa County exhibited systemic problems with extreme prosecutorial misconduct, deficient defense representation, racial bias, excessive punishment, and innocence. The county's top prosecutor, Andrew Thomas, pursued capital charges at nearly double the rate of his predecesssor after winning election in 2004. His pattern of gross misconduct led a three-member panel of the Arizona Supreme Court to disbar him in 2012 for having "outrageously exploited power, flagrantly fostered fear, and disgracefully misused the law.” Three Maricopa prosecutors who served under Thomas accounted for more than one-third of all capital cases the Arizona Supreme Court has been called upon to review on direct appeal since 2006, "amass[ing] findings of improper behavior in eight [cases]." The excessive number of capital prosecutions in Thomas' tenure created a "capital case crisis" that "crippled the county's public defender system" and left a dozen murder defendants without lawyers. Four lawyers who were appointed accounted for nearly a quarter of all Arizona death cases that have reached the state supreme court since 2006. One Marciopa defense attorney, Herman Alcantar, represented five pretrial capital defendants at once, making it almost impossible for him to adequately represent his clients. In one of those cases, a month before trial, he had not filed any substantive motions or met with his client in over a year. Nathanial Carr represented four people now on death row, and spent less than two days presenting mitigation for each one. He wrote that one client, who had an IQ of 72, "looks like a killer, not a retard." In the six years covered by the Fair Punishment Project's report on outlier counties, 57% of Maricopa's death sentences were imposed on people of color. In that same period, no people of color were sentenced to death anywhere else in Arizona. Five Maricopa County death row inmates have been exonerated. Ray Krone (pictured) was convicted on junk science testimony after a prosecutor falsely claimed, "bite marks are as unique as fingerprints." He was later exonerated by DNA testing. Debra Milke spent 22 years on death row before her case was reversed and the state courts barred the prosecution from retrying her because of extensive official misconduct. An appellate court called her case, "a severe stain on the Arizona justice system."

This is the second in our 16-part What's New series on outlier counties that have sent the most number of defendants to death row since 2010.

("Too Broken to Fix: Part I," The Fair Punishment Project, August 23, 2016; C. Geidner, "Report Aims To Explain 'Outlier' Counties Imposing Most New Death Sentences," Buzzfeed, August 23, 2016, R. Smith, "The Worst Lawyers," Slate, November 4, 2015.) See Prosecutorial Misconduct, RepresentationInnocence, and Race