By Isaiah Thompson-Bonilla
Journalism Guild Writer
The National Journal has released a report on the death penalty showing that there are approximately 10 counties responsible for one quarter of the executions in U.S. prisons.
Dustin Volz, author of the article, placed a huge emphasis on the state of Texas, where four out of 254 counties have accounted for nearly half of the state’s executions. Though state governments are responsible for implementing the executions, death sentences are decided at the local government’s judicial level.
One of the main reasons that Harris County, Dallas County, Tarrant County, and Bexar County account for nearly half of the state’s executions in Texas is due to the population of those counties. Harris County has over 4 million people, one of the largest counties in the country. That presents the likelihood of more crime due to sheer size of the population.
The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) released data from a study it performed that highlighted the fact that 2 percent of counties account for more than half of all death-row sentences and executions. The DPIC argued that death sentences depend more on county location rather than the mitigating factors of the capital crime. In states like California, there are “special circumstance clauses” that have to be proven in order to seek a death sentence. However, there are states that allow the district attorney to decide whether to seek a death sentence.
Volz pointed out that in urban areas, particularly in southern states, district attorneys have a plethora of resources, which increases the possibility of achieving a death petition.
The fact that urban areas have deeper coffers than smaller counties makes a difference when a district attorney’s office has to decide whether to aggressively pursue the death penalty. Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center said, “To take on a death penalty case, that’s a multi-year commitment of a million dollars or more. “If you’re in Houston, there are 200 attorneys in the DA’s office, at least. They can do a lot of death penalty cases.”
The more prosecutors are involved in death penalty cases the more experience they get, which ultimately results in a higher conviction success rate.
This experience covers more than just court proceedings; experience allows prosecutors to develop the ability to pick favorable jurors when at the end of the trial they must make the declaration for death.
From a political viewpoint, prosecutors are elected at the local level. Kent Scheidegger, the chief lawyer for the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, suggested that the reason local prosecutors are elected is so that citizens of that county can have an influence on how cases are adjudicated. Their decision is largely based on the campaign platform of each candidate.
When looking at the history of Harris County’s high death penalty count, the credit can be attributed to former District Attorney Johnny Holmes.
According to Dieter, during Holmes’ 21-year D. A. stint he was responsible for more than 200 death row sentences. Since Holmes’ departure as district attorney of Harris County, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of death sentences.
Since the death penalty moratorium was lifted in 1976, there have been 1,397 executions in the United States and counting.