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.

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.

What We're Following See More »
White House Will Tell McGahn Not to Testify
20 minutes ago
Prosecutors Poring Over Inauguration Documents
1 hours ago
SCOTUS Says Businesses Can't Donate to Candidates
1 hours ago
Deutsche Bank Flagged Several Transactions by Trump, Kushner
3 hours ago

"Anti-money-laundering specialists at Deutsche Bank recommended in 2016 and 2017 that multiple transactions involving legal entities controlled by Donald J. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, be reported to a federal financial-crimes watchdog." Bank executives did not follow up on the recommendations.

Ford Cutting 2,300 American Jobs
3 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.