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

John Holdridge,
Capital Punishment Project
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July 9, 2009

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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