The imposition of the death penalty — from prosecution to sentencing — has become a rarity mostly confined to a very small number of counties in America, reported BuzzFeed.com.
This point about counties was highlighted by Justice Stephen Breyer — with maps — in a 2015 dissenting opinion he wrote in a death penalty challenge relating to execution drugs.
“Geography also plays an important role in determining who is sentenced to death. And that is not simply because some States permit the death penalty while others do not. Rather within a death penalty State, the imposition of the death penalty heavily depends on the county in which a defendant is tried,” he wrote at the time.
Now, a project out of Harvard Law School is attempting to explain why those counties exist — and how those counties exemplify larger problems that critics of the death penalty have described regarding the punishment.
The Fair Punishment Project has begun analyzing the 16 counties that imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015 and, on Tuesday, is releasing its first of two reports on its research. “Too Broken to Fix: Part I,” about half of those counties, details the common problems it has found throughout the eight counties. Those problems — as detailed and defined by the Fair Punishment Project include: overzealous prosecution, inadequate defense, racial bias and exclusion, excessive punishments, and innocence.
Notably, this county-level diminishment of the death penalty across much of the nation has happened on the front end of the death penalty process while the end of the process — the pace of executions in America — has slowed nearly to a standstill: Only one execution has taken place in the entire country since May 11.
At the other extreme, one county in Arizona — Maricopa County — had 28 death sentences imposed between 2010 and 2015.
The county, according to the Fair Punishment Project’s findings, stands out for its stark examples of the problems found across the counties that most often sentence people to death. The county, which includes Phoenix, is one of the largest in the nation and is perhaps best known for its chief law enforcement officer, Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio’s harsh tactics against undocumented immigrants and other groups and support for racial profiling — policies often challenged successfully in court — have kept the county’s law enforcement efforts in the national news in recent years.
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