Analyzing Capital Punishment’s ‘New Geography’

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Execution table at NM State Pen. Photo by Len Piorkowski via Flickr


A new geography of capital punishment is taking shape, with just 2 percent of the nation’s counties now accounting for a majority of people on death row, the New York Times reports. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment. Four more have imposed a moratorium on executions. Of the 26 other states, only 14 handed down death sentences last year, for a total of 50 nationwide, less than half the number six years before. California, which issued more than one-quarter of last year’s death sentences, hasn’t executed anyone since 2006.

An even smaller fraction of the two percent of counties still imposes death sentences regularly. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said last year that only 15 counties of more than 3,000 total had imposed five or more new death sentences since 2010. In a dissenting opinion, Breyer staked out new territory in the debate over whether the death penalty has proved too unfair, and racially discriminatory, to continue. University of Virginia law Prof. Brandon Garrett, with a team at Harvard Law School called the Fair Punishment Project, is trying to identify the factors that explain why certain counties still regularly impose capital punishment.

“The people who get the death penalty tend to live in places with overaggressive prosecutors and defense lawyers who aren’t up to the task of defending against them — that’s a double whammy,” says the project’s Robert Smith. “Then in some places there’s a third element: a cultural legacy of racial bias and exclusion. It’s just not true that we execute the people who are the most culpable.”

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