Sentenced To Death Because Of Where You Live: The Death Penalty’s Geographic Bias

Americans have become increasingly troubled by the profound flaws in our capital punishment system, including its astonishing error rate and its racial and socioeconomic biases. They are less aware of its disturbing geographical biases.

The United States does not practice capital punishment. Isolated parts of it do.

The death penalty is primarily a southern institution, as Death Penalty Information Center statistics establish. The State of Texas alone has accounted for over 37 percent of all executions in the U.S. since 1977, which marked the beginning of the nation’s modern death penalty era. Of the 32 executions carried out so far this year, Texas is responsible for half of them.

Southern states accounted for 95 percent of the executions in 2008 (Texas alone accounted for about 50 percent). In 2007 (the last year for which statistics are available), juries returned 115 death sentences throughout the nation and, of these, over 60 percent were in the South.

However, geographic bias does not exist only from region to region and from state to state. There are substantial geographic biases within states themselves. A 2002 study found that more than two-thirds of American counties have never imposed the death penalty since 1977. Only 3 percent (92 out of 3,066) of the nation’s counties account for 50 percent of its death sentences in that 32 year period.

In Texas, over 33 percent of the prisoners on the state’s death row today come from one county — Harris County, where Houston is located. Harris County has rightly been called the capital of capital punishment. An Amnesty International publication from 2007 reported that if Harris County were a state, it would rank second behind Texas in total number of executions since 1977.

Like virtually every other death penalty state, California, whose death row is the largest in the nation with a staggering 678 condemned inmates, suffers from similar geographic disparities. To view an interactive map demonstrating these disparities, click here.

The overwhelming geographical bias of our capital punishment system is further evidence that the system is arbitrary and capricious — and fundamentally unfair. It is one more reason for us to join the rest of the civilized world and repeal our capital punishment statutes.

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Maggie

I am not sure where I stand on the Death Penalty. I keep hearing you say it is by region and race. Perhaps it is, I don't know. I do know that if a love one of mine was killed I would find it very hard not to wish for the Death Penalty. I don't know if I am a big enough person to forgive them and think of them living while my family is destroyed.

Is the Death Penalty in these regions for any crime or a violent crime that calls for it? If a person is found guilty by a jury of their peers doesn't that mean that there was enough evidence to convict? If not do we revert to mob rule? A lot of questions.

Anonymous

Thanks, John, for binging up this very unnerving reality about the death penalty in our country. I’m a California resident and I find it wildly unbelievable that of the 58 counties in California, only 5 continue to aggressively sentence people to death. A reasonable person would assume that these 5 counties share certain similar traits besides keeping our death row fully stocked, however, we find this is not the case. These counties have different homicide rates, population densities, and voting patterns among other things. In 2008, Romy Ganschow at the ACLU of Northern California authored a report called “Death by Geography: A County by County Analysis of the Road to Execution in California,” which maps out California’s geographic bias in death sentences and argues that “California’s death penalty is arbitrary, unnecessary and a waste of critical resources.” (View the report here: http://www.aclunc.org/docs/criminal_justice/death_penalty/death_by_geogr...) The most aggressive death sentencing county in California, Alameda County, is also known to be one of our most politically liberal counties…Go figure. To tackle this disturbing reality, many Alameda County residents have joined forces and formed a coalition to increase public safety by promoting alternatives to the death penalty (learn more about the Alameda County Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty by visiting their website, www.alamedadeathpenalty.org.)
Watch out Tulare County, we’re coming for you next!

Dudley Sharp

John Holdridge's lack of understanding
Dudley Sharp

Geography

All the world’s jurisdictions have a variance with their criminal laws and sanctions.

In the US, the death penalty is rare and geographically unique partially because (1) a very low percentage of US murders are death penalty eligible; (2) they are concentrated in large urban areas and (3) prosecutorial discretion is, always, individual in nature, not just with the death penalty, but with all sanctions.

The US death penalty is likely the least arbitrary and capricious criminal sanction in the world.

About 10% of all murders within the US might qualify for a death penalty eligible trial. That would be about 60,000 murders since 1973. We have sentenced 8000 murderers to death since then, or 13% of those eligible.

I doubt that there is any other crime which receives a "higher" percentage of maximum sentences, when mandatory sentences are not available. Based upon that, as well as pre trial, trial, appellate and clemency/commutation realities, the US death penalty is likely the least arbitrary and capricious criminal sanctions in the world.

Mr. Holdridge mentions Texas, obviously, not knowing that Texas is in about the middle of all the death penalty states, when looking at the probability of seeking a death sentence. Instead of Texas representing some type of imagined "geographic bias", it represents just the opposite. (1)

Racial issues

White murderers are twice as likely to be executed in the US as are black murderers and are executed, on average, 12 months more quickly than are black death row inmates.

It is often stated that it is the race of the victim which decides who is prosecuted in death penalty cases. Although blacks and whites make up about an equal number of murder victims, capital cases are 6 times more likely to involve white victim murders than black victim murders. This, so the logic goes, is proof that the US only cares about white victims.

Hardly. Only capital murders, not all murders, are subject to a capital indictment. Generally, a capital murder is limited to murders plus secondary aggravating factors, such as murders involving burglary, carjacking, rape, and additional murders, such as police murders, serial and multiple murders. White victims are, overwhelmingly, the victims under those circumstances, in ratios nearly identical to the cases found on death row.

Any other racial combinations of defendants and/or their victims in death penalty cases, is a reflection of the crimes committed and not any racial bias within the system, as confirmed by studies from the Rand Corporation (1991), Smith College (1994), U of Maryland (2002), New Jersey Supreme Court (2003) and by a view of criminal justice statistics, within a framework of the secondary aggravating factors necessary for capital indictments.

See also Footnote 1.

Socio-economic issues

No one disputes that wealthier defendants can hire better lawyers and, therefore, should have a legal advantage over their poorer counterparts. The US has executed about 0.15% of all murderers since new death penalty statutes were enacted in 1973. Is there evidence that wealthier capital murderers are less likely to be executed than their poorer ilk, based upon the proportion of capital murders committed by different those different economic groups?

Risk to Innocents

Of all the government programs in the world, that put innocents at risk, is there one with a safer record and with greater protections than the US death penalty?

Unlikely.

In choosing to end the death penalty, or in choosing not implement it, some have chosen to spare murderers at the cost of sacrificing more innocent lives.

Please review: “The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents”
http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/07/05/the-death-penalty-more-protectio...

(1)" The Myth of Innocence"
http://joshmarquis.blogspot.com/2005/03/myth-of-innocence.html

Dudley Sharp
e-mail sharpjfa@aol.com, 713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas

Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

Pro death penalty sites

essays http://homicidesurvivors.com/categories/Dudley%20Sharp%20-%20Justice%20M...

http://www.dpinfo.com
http://www.cjlf.org/deathpenalty/DPinformation.htm
http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/links/dplinks.htm
http://prodpinNC.blogspot.com/
http://www.coastda.com/archives.html
http://www.lexingtonprosecutor.com/death_penalty_debate.htm
http://www.prodeathpenalty.com
http://yesdeathpenalty.googlepages.com/home2 (Sweden)
http://www.wesleylowe.com/cp.html

An American

A better all around idea would be to enact and carry out the death penalty nationwide. Multiple reasons
1. Save taxpayers billions of dollars that go to pay for crunchy peanut butter and cable television for scum that have taken innocent lives
2. Sends a message to future would be murderers, rapists, etc. If they know they are going to die for it, they may have second thoughts. As is they get three hots and a cot, not to mention cable and all the other niceties that wonderful organizations like the ACLU has fought so hard to get them.
3. Creates jobs. Someone has to dispose of the carcass. Helps the farmers (see #4)
4. Fertilizer. Decomposing bodies add nitrogen to the soil making it richer.

I think its time we skim the floaters out of the gene pool.

Rob

All I hear on the news is about states not meeting there budgets and that if they cant then they might have to start letting prisoners out of jail to save money. Well I think if we just started put people that have been on deathrow for more that 10 years to death each state will save about 22 milllion dollars. They have been found guilty. Give them what they deserve.

Rob

Dudley, Very good post! I am used to the "lets save everyone and everything" stupid dribble. Yours was a great read! GOOD JOB!

Witness

Gerald Bordelon was sentenced to death for the murder of his 12 year old step daughter in 2002. Sentence was imposed Nov 6, 2006 at which time he immediately fired any attorneys and asked the court to waive all appeals and move forward with his execution. Many inmates have volunteered for execution, normally after some appeals have been ruled on. It has been three years since he was sentenced in Livingston Parish, Louisiana. His case has been in the hands of the Louisiana Supreme Court awaiting a decision by them as to when he can have an execution date. As of February 2009, all paperwork has been completed and all that waits is a final ruling by LASC.
The Louisiana laws states that an "Inmate may appeal" his conviction of death. May being the magic word. Should his case have any type of review being there are many errors within the case, or should he be allowed to be executed with NO review to his case?

etter yet, Should the Legal Dept at Angola, LA be able to deny him access to legal aide and lawbooks to persue waiving his appeals as they are actively doing?

Witness

Louisiana has 5 inmates that have exhausted appeals, but since no one is pushing for the courts to issue an execution date, the La Supreme Court is just sitting on the cases letting them stall. This has been for a couple of years now.

roald

Maggie, I don't know whether I would be a big enough person to forgive someone who destroyed my family. That is why we turn to the State for justice.

Whether or not you believe the State should execute people, there is a frightening number of convicted killers found to be innocent. That alone should forestall executions until the legal system is perfected.

shawn

here is a solution to that, make capital punishment available in all states. you complain about your taxes, yet you would want them to go to supporting scum like serial killers, rapists. and child molesters. or people serving one or more consecutive life sentences. obviously they are goin to die in prison so why not end that early save money and torture for the individual not that i care about those kind of people but obviously ya'll do

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