death sentences Harris County

New report: Too Broken to Fix: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties

HarrisA new report from the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School offers an in-depth look at how the death penalty is operating in the small handful of counties across the country that are still using it. Of the 3,143 county or county equivalents in the United States, only 16—or one half of one percent—imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015. Part I of the report, titled Too Broken to Fix: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Countiesexamined 10 years of court opinions and records from eight of these 16 “outlier counties,” including Caddo Parish (LA), Clark (NV), Duval (FL), Harris (TX), Maricopa (AZ), Mobile (AL), Kern (CA) and Riverside (CA). The report also analyzed all of the new death sentences handed down in these counties since 2010. Click here to read the report.

Some of these findings will be featured in the New York Times Magazine August 28th edition by Emily Bazelon, which can be previewed online here.

From the press release:

The report notes that these “outlier counties” are plagued by persistent problems of overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias. Researchers found that the impact of these systemic problems included the conviction of innocent people, and the excessively harsh punishment of people with significant impairments. The report notes that many of the defendants appear to have one or more impairments that are on par with, or worse than, those that the U.S. Supreme Court has said should categorically exempt individuals from execution due to lessened culpability. The Court previously found that individuals with intellectual disabilities (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002) and juveniles under the age of 18 (Roper v. Simmons, 2005) should not be subject to the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment.

Here are some of the report’s findings:

  • Five of the eight counties had at least one person exonerated from death row since 1976. Harris County has had three death row exonerations: Ricardo Aldape Guerra, Vernon McManus, and Alfred Dewayne Brown.  In 2015, the DA’s office dropped capital murder charges against Brown because the state did not have enough evidence to secure a conviction.
  • Out of all of the death sentences obtained in these counties between 2010 and 2015, 41 percent were given to African-American defendants, and 69 percent were given to people of color. In Harris County, 100 percent of the defendants who were newly sentenced to death since November 2004 have been people of color.
  • Over half (53 percent) of Harris County death penalty cases decided on direct appeal since 2006 involved significant mitigation evidence.  Approximately one quarter of the cases involved a defendant under the age of 21.  Another quarter of the cases involved a defendant with an intellectual disability, brain damage, or severe mental illness.

As the report notes, despite its place among these outlier counties, Harris County has experienced a major shift over the last decade when it comes to imposition of the death penalty.  Between 1998 and 2003, Harris County jurors imposed 53 new death sentences.  Between 2004 and 2009, jurors imposed 16.  Since 2010, there have been 10 new death sentences imposed in Harris County.  No Harris County jury has imposed the death penalty in a case involving a new defendant since July 2014.

This drop in new death sentences in Harris County appears to reflect growing public reluctance to impose the ultimate punishment. According to the results of the the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University’s Houston Area Survey for 2016, just 27 percent of respondents think the death penalty, rather than life imprisonment, is the most appropriate punishment for first-degree murder, a drop from 39 percent in 2008.  The survey report notes, “the recent revelations of discriminatory sentencing, innocent persons being freed from Death Row just before their scheduled executions, and botched lethal injections have been eroding support for capital punishment, and the costs of seeking the death penalty rather than life imprisonment have risen dramatically.”