FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 30, 2016
New Report Names Former Texas Prosecutor Among Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors in America
Five District Attorneys Put the Equivalent of 1 out Every 7 People on Death Row; Death Sentencing Dramatically Declined After They Left Office
Cambridge, Mass. — In anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark death penalty decision, Gregg v. Georgia, Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project released a new report identifying America’s five deadliest head prosecutors out of the thousands that have held that office across the country in the last 40 years. Three of the five prosecutors (Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina; Donnie Myers of Lexington, South Carolina; and Bob Macy of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma) personally obtained more than 35 death sentences each, while the other two (Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania and Johnny Holmes of Harris County, Texas) oversaw District Attorney offices that obtained more than 100 and 200 death sentences respectively during their tenures. All together, these five prosecutors have put the equivalent of 1 out of every 7 people currently on death row.
The report notes that these “overzealous” personalities disproportionately drove up death sentencing rates in their counties and their states–leaving an outsized impact on death sentencing statistics nationwide.
“The legitimacy of the death penalty is seriously undermined when it is only being used in a small handful of places by an even smaller group of prosecutors who continually engage in misconduct,” said Robert J. Smith, a legal fellow at Harvard Law School and one of the report’s researchers.
“This report suggests that the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality adopted by a small group of prosecutors has led to shockingly high rates of prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions,” notes Harvard Law Professor Ronald Sullivan.
- Three of the top five deadliest prosecutors (Macy, Britt, and Myers) had misconduct found by courts in 33%, 37%, and 46% of their death penalty cases respectively. (Rates are not available for the other two prosecutors who oversaw, but did not personally try, all of the death penalty cases in their counties.)
- Four of the five deadliest district attorneys prosecuted, or oversaw the prosecution of, eight individuals who were later exonerated and released from death row. This total represents approximately one out of every 20 death row exonerations that have occurred nationwide. One of these exonerations was from Harris County, Texas (Ricardo Guerra, sentenced in 1982 and exonerated in 1997 due to egregious police and prosecutorial misconduct).
- Together, these five prosecutors obtained a total of 440 death sentences, which is equivalent to approximately 15% of the current U.S. death row population, or approximately one out of every seven people currently sentenced to death. Johnny Holmes’ office was responsible for at least 201 — or nearly half — of those sentences over a 21-year time period.
- When four of the five deadliest prosecutors left office (the fifth prosecutor is still in office), death sentencing dramatically declined in these jurisdictions, indicating that it was these individual personalities, not an excessive attachment to the death penalty by local residents, that drove up the rates of death sentencing.
- In Harris County, Johnny Holmes’ office secured an average 12 capital sentences a year in the decade before his retirement in 2000. Since 2008, by contrast, Harris County juries sent an average of one person to death row each year.
- An individual sentenced to death in Harris County while Johnny Holmes was the District Attorney was recently granted a hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court (Buck v. Stephens). The case involved inappropriate behavior by the prosecutor.
Overall, Harris County juries have imposed nearly 300 death sentences since the Gregg decision. Of these, 126 individuals convicted in Harris County have been executed. Currently, 85 individuals convicted in Harris County remain on death row on Texas (more than one-third of the state’s death row population).
“What’s striking is the extent to which death sentencing rates plummeted in these jurisdictions after these individual prosecutors left office. Harris County has had 12 times fewer death sentences in the years since Johnny Holmes and his former deputy Chuck Rosenthal departed. While other factors have also contributed to this decline, it is clear that a handful of individuals have had an outsized impact on the death sentencing in Texas and nationwide,” notes Professor Jordan Steiker of the University of Texas Law School. “Without the sentences sought and obtained by these outliers, we would have an even clearer picture of the death penalty’s marginal and declining significance within American criminal justice.”
The report also names five additional District Attorneys who have earned a reputation in their respective states for their zealous pursuit of death sentences, and provides a snapshot of three active prosecutors who, if they continue on their current trajectories, may soon join the ranks of the deadliest prosecutors in America.
Gregg v. Georgia was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on July 2, 1976, and effectively reauthorized the use of the death penalty in America, ushering in the modern death penalty era.
About the Fair Punishment Project:
The Fair Punishment Project uses legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable. As a joint initiative of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute, we work to highlight the gross injustices resulting from prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias, and to illuminate the laws that result in excessive punishment. For more information visit: www.fairpunishment.org.