Phoenix’ Maricopa County has more pending death-penalty cases than Harris County, the Houston-area jurisdiction that is known as the “death-penalty capital” among critics of capital punishment, reports the Arizona Republic. Last year, Maricopa County prosecutor Andrew Thomas sought the death penalty in nearly half of the first-degree murder cases, and there is an all-time high of 135 capital cases in trial or headed toward trial. In heinous cases, Thomas says, death should be on the table for the jury to decide. “I think that it’s appropriate for a panel of citizens to make that ultimate decision,” he said. “And I am willing to invest the resources necessary to give them that option.”
The Republic says his crusade could be straining the system. The surge could mean a huge tab for taxpayers, few attorneys to represent people who face death sentences, and more death cases than the Arizona Supreme Court can handle. A judge has ordered an unprecedented hearing March 2 to probe a critical shortage of death-penalty defense attorneys. The Arizona Supreme Court has asked a task force to figure out how to handle the incoming tide of Maricopa County cases. The county has more pending death-penalty cases than many other communities. Texas’ Harris County has 17 pending death-penalty cases, and officials there are undecided whether to seek death in 39 other murder cases. Historically, Harris County has had the nation’s highest number of death sentences and executions.