Study: Two percent of counties responsible for majority of US executions

Just two percent of counties in the United States are responsible for more than half of the country's executions since 1976, according to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center.

The report, released last week, found that not only are just 62 U.S. counties behind the majority of the death row population and death sentences, but 85 percent of the remaining 3,081 counties in the U.S. have not had a single case resulting in an execution in over 45 years.

"In large swaths, there are no executions. The U.S. is in one sense a death penalty country, but in another sense, a very hesitant, pick-and-choose kind of death penalty country. It's not used in the majority of our jurisdictions," said Richard Dieter, the Death Penalty Information Center's executive director and author of the report. 

The total cost of one death sentence is estimated at $3 million, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization that promotes discussion on capital punishment.

Since the Supreme Court reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, there have been 8,300 death sentences, at a total cost of $25 billion — which have primarily fallen on taxpayers outside of the counties where the executions have taken place.

"The whole state has to pay for the executions, and they may not endorse that and they may not realize that," Dieter said.

Making matters worse, in counties that use the death penalty heavily, the legal system is fraught with flaws, the report said.

Philadelphia County, for example — responsible for nearly half of Pennsylvania's inmates — pays court-appointed lawyers the lowest fees in the state and frequently has death sentences reversed because of inadequate defense representation.

Philadelphia County has the third largest number of people on death row in the country.

"High-use counties were some of the most abusive in terms of the legal process, that is, serious errors were found in the places that used it a lot," Dieter said. "Their cases were reversed when a higher court looked at them. Something wasn't being done right.

"That's what happens when you're churning out lots of highly technical cases, but you're doing it every week. You try to do it cheaply and quickly." 

Maricopa County in Arizona, meanwhile, which ranks fourth in the country in number of death row inmates, saw its former county attorney, Andrew Thomas, disbarred by the state Supreme Court because he used the death penalty so aggressively that at one point there were 149 pending capital cases overwhelming the local court system.

The report also highlights Maricopa County for having four times the number of pending death penalty cases as Los Angeles or Houston on a per capita basis.

Population didn't necessarily correspond to to an uptick in death penalty cases. Los Angeles County, a highly populated area, has produced the most people on death row, but rural areas also were among some of the top contributors. 

"It all starts with the district attorney [for the county]," Dieter said. "These single individuals are making decisions."

David Muhlhausen, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, commended the district attorneys.

"If the report is correct, these select few district attorneys are doing their job. In states where the death penalty is allowed, they should use that sentence in appropriate cases. If a defendant is arrested for crimes that fit a death penalty case and if there's good evidence, then a prosecutor is doing his or her job by bringing forth a death penalty prosecution," he said.

Counties in California and Texas were heavily represented among the top counties responsible for more than half of the nation's death row population and responsible for more than half of the executions since 1976. 

The top 10 counties among the two percent of counties responsible for more than half of the nation’s death row population are: Los Angeles County, Calif.; Harris County, Texas; Philadelphia County, Pa.; Maricopa County, Ariz.; Riverside County, Calif.; Clark County, Nev.; Orange County, Calif.; Duval County, Fla.; Alameda County, Calif.; and San Diego County, Calif.

The top 10 counties among the two percent of counties responsible for more than half of the executions since 1976 are: Harris County, Texas; Dallas County, Texas; Oklahoma County, Okla.; Tarrant County, Texas; Bexar County, Texas; Montgomery County, Texas; Tulsa County, Okla.; Jefferson County, Texas; St. Louis County, Mo.; and Brazos County, Texas.

In Texas, just four counties out of a total of 254 account for almost half of all executions throughout the state. In California, three counties produce more than half of the state's death row population — which is the largest in the country.

There are death penalty laws in 32 states. In the past six years, six states have ended the death penalty: Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey, and New York.

"They just get frustrated with it. It's an expensive operation," Dieter said.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, sentencing people to die by execution is three times more expensive than sentencing than to die in prison.

Public support for the death penalty was highest in the mid-1990s, a Pew Research Center study found. In 2011, 62 percent of Americans said they supported capital punishment for people convicted of murder.