Why Are So Many People Getting Sentenced to Death in Houston?

Ten counties are responsible for more than a quarter of all U.S. executions, but one in Texas far surpasses all others.

A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. 
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Sept. 24, 2014, 1 a.m.

Just 10 U.S. counties—roughly 0.3 per­cent of the na­tion’s total—ac­count for more than a quarter of all the Amer­ic­an ex­e­cu­tions that have been car­ried out since 1976.

Texas’s Har­ris County, which in­cludes Hou­s­ton, is far and away the lead­er in ex­e­cu­tions dur­ing that peri­od. That dis­trict has handed out 122 death sen­tences that were car­ried to com­ple­tion, more than double the next highest. Har­ris County alone is re­spons­ible for more ex­e­cu­tions than any state be­sides Texas.

Dal­las County, which in­cludes the Dal­las-Fort Worth area, comes in second at 53.

Ac­cord­ing to data main­tained by the Death Pen­alty In­form­a­tion Cen­ter, a D.C.-based or­gan­iz­a­tion that op­poses the death pen­alty, the 10 counties with the most ex­e­cu­tions are:

1. Har­ris County (Hou­s­ton), Texas: 122

2. Dal­las County (Dal­las/Fort Worth), Texas: 53

3. Ok­lahoma County (Ok­lahoma City), Ok­lahoma: 40

4. Tar­rant County (Fort Worth), Texas: 38

5. Bex­ar County (San Ant­o­nio), Texas: 37

6. Tulsa County, Ok­lahoma: 17

7. Mont­gomery County, Texas: 16

8. Jef­fer­son County, Texas: 16

9. St. Louis County, Mis­souri: 15

10 (tie). St. Louis City, Mis­souri: 13

10 (tie). Pima County (Tuc­son), Ari­zona: 13

While a tiny por­tion of counties are re­spons­ible for a large share of ex­e­cu­tions since 1976, 85 per­cent of counties—in­clud­ing a ma­jor­ity of those in Texas—have not been re­spons­ible for any ex­e­cu­tions in the last 40 years. Just four of Texas’s 254 counties ac­count for about half of all the state’s ex­e­cu­tions.

The map be­low provides a visu­al il­lus­tra­tion of the county dis­tri­bu­tion of ex­e­cu­tions. Har­ris is rep­res­en­ted by the large purple circle:

Data from us-ex­e­cu­tions.silk.co

States are gen­er­ally re­spons­ible for ad­min­is­ter­ing ex­e­cu­tions, but the sen­tences be­gin at the county level. So why do some counties hand out so many more death-pen­alty sen­tences than oth­ers?

There are some ob­vi­ous factors: Some counties are in states where cap­it­al pun­ish­ment is banned, tak­ing them out of con­sid­er­a­tion. And lar­ger counties, by vir­tue of hav­ing more people, are also likely to have more crimes and more crimes that qual­i­fy for death sen­tences. Har­ris County, for ex­ample, has more than 4 mil­lion people—mak­ing it one of the largest in the coun­try.

Death-pen­alty op­pon­ents, however, have noted dis­crep­an­cies that are un­cor­rel­ated with state laws or county sizes.

A study re­leased last year by the Death Pen­alty In­form­a­tion Cen­ter found that 2 per­cent of counties ac­count for more than half of all death-row sen­tences and ex­e­cu­tions. The re­port ar­gued that death sen­tences “de­pend more on the loc­a­tion of the county line than on the sever­ity of the crime.” In many states, the de­cision to pur­sue a death sen­tence is made by the county’s dis­trict at­tor­ney, a po­s­i­tion that is of­ten elec­ted.

The re­port’s au­thors sug­ges­ted that urb­an areas, largely in the South, where pro­sec­utors have abund­ant re­sources are most likely to pur­sue and achieve a death sen­tence. Be­cause court ap­peals reach­ing up to the Su­preme Court can drag on for years, if not dec­ades, smal­ler counties are less able to tie their hands with a cap­it­al case.

“To take on a death-pen­alty case, that’s a mul­ti­year com­mit­ment of a mil­lion dol­lars or more,” said Richard Di­eter, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Death Pen­alty In­form­a­tion Cen­ter. “If you’re in Hou­s­ton, there are 200 at­tor­neys in the D.A.’s of­fice, at least. They can do a lot of death-pen­alty cases.”

“Cer­tain pro­sec­utors, par­tic­u­larly in cer­tain re­gions, will de­vel­op ex­pert­ise, not just in an abil­ity to se­cure a cap­it­al ver­dict “¦ but to know how to pick a jury that is more death-in­clined,” said Douglas Ber­man, a sen­ten­cing ex­pert at Ohio State Uni­versity’s law school who con­siders him­self neither for or against the death pen­alty.

Pop­u­la­tion in­deed plays a role, Ber­man ad­ded, but not just be­cause the sheer amount of crimes com­mit­ted. By hav­ing more hom­icides on their dock­et, pro­sec­utors can cherry-pick the cases most likely to turn back a cap­it­al sen­tence and pur­sue those ones ag­gress­ively, he said.

“No pro­sec­utor likes to lose a case,” Ber­man said. “They would es­pe­cially by frus­trated to put all this en­ergy in pur­su­ing a death sen­tence and have it come back as a life sen­tence. You sort of take a gulp and ask your­self, ‘Wow, is that sort of case right for the death pen­alty?’ “

Death-pen­alty ad­voc­ates don’t dis­pute that a pro­sec­utori­al dis­cre­tion plays a role in de­term­in­ing how many cap­it­al sen­tences ori­gin­ate from a spe­cif­ic county. But that hardly in­dic­ates the sys­tem is broken, said Kent Scheide­g­ger, the chief law­yer for the Sac­ra­mento-based Crim­in­al Justice Leg­al Found­a­tion.

“The reas­on we elect our pro­sec­utors loc­ally is that we can have that sort of in­flu­ence,” Scheide­g­ger said, adding that those with dis­pro­por­tion­ately low, not high, num­bers of ex­e­cu­tions are prob­lem­at­ic. “There are places where the death pen­alty is not im­posed enough.”

So, why is Har­ris County’s death count so much high­er than any­where else? Former Dis­trict At­tor­ney Johnny Holmes de­serves a lot of cred­it, ac­cord­ing to Di­eter. Dur­ing Holmes’s 21-year ten­ure, which ended in 2000, the “gen­tle­man ranch­er” presided over more than 200 death-row sen­tences.

“His philo­sophy was to seek the death pen­alty of­ten, and he ran on that plat­form,” Di­eter said. “Since Johnny left, the num­ber of death sen­tences [in Har­ris County] has dropped dra­mat­ic­ally.”

The Su­preme Court in 1972 put a morator­i­um on the death pen­alty due to con­cerns it was be­ing ap­plied ran­domly and without suf­fi­cient leg­al guid­ance to jur­ors. But cap­it­al pun­ish­ment was re­in­stated in 1976 with some guidelines in­ten­ded to lim­it sub­ject­ive dis­cre­tion in its sen­ten­cing.

Since 1976, a total of 1,389 ex­e­cu­tions have taken place in the U.S.

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