Last Thursday, Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project released a report ranking the top five deadliest prosecutors in the United States over the past 40 years. The report highlights the link between “overzealous personalities” and death sentencing, providing evidence of a “win at all costs mentality” among the five prosecutors that led to shockingly high rates of misconduct and a grossly disproportional number of death sentences. The five deadliest prosecutors are listed as follows:
#1. Joe Britt (Robeson County, NC)
#2. Robert Macy (Oklahoma County, OK)
#3. Donnie Myers (Lexington, SC)
#4. Lynne Abraham (Philadelphia County, PA)
#5. Johnnie Holmes (Harris County, TX)
All together, the five total at least 440 death sentences, the equivalent of 1 out of every 7 people currently on death row, or 15% of current death row inmates.
The report finds that accompanying the high rates of death sentencing were equally high rates of prosecutorial misconduct as the courts found in 33%, 37%, and 46% of Britt, Macy and Myers’s death cases (alleged misconduct reported as high as 94% credited to Macy). Eight exonerations have also resulted from these cases or cases supervised by these five.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Fair Punishment Project Director Rob Smith commented on the connection between the prosecutors’ aggressive nature and the clear inattention to ethics and regulations: “What’s striking is not just that there a few peculiar personalities that account for so many death sentences, but that their overzealous support for capital punishment comes paired with underzealous commitment to the rules and regulations that promote fairness and accuracy.”
The report also indicates that after four of the prosecutors left office (Holmes remains until 2017), death sentencing rates plummeted in the corresponding jurisdictions, supporting the narrative that the death penalty is disproportionately used among a handful of prosecutors: “Over the past fifteen years, even as death sentences have declined nationally, a small group of individuals continue to drive up the total number of death sentences nationwide, which has contributed to a misperception that the death penalty is a common practice, when in reality, most of America’s prosecutors have abandoned it.”
Perhaps one of the most significant takeaways from the study is the fact that in the U.S., the county where one is tried has equal (if not more) weight on one’s sentence than the crime itself, a condition Justice Stephen Breyer commented on in his dissent in Glossip vs. Gross: “…within a death penalty state, the imposition of the death penalty heavily depends on the county in which a defendant is tried.” In Tennessee, inmates from Shelby County represent 40% of death row–nearly half–while inmates from Davidson County only represent about 12% of the state’s death row population. And, in the Death Penalty Information Center’s 2013 report, “The 2% Death Penalty” Shelby County ranked 13th out of the counties responsible for the majority of inmates currently on death row in the nation.
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