2 Percent of U.S. Counties Account for Most of America’s Executions

And the top two counties are both in Texas.

The 'death chamber' at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas, February 29, 2000. 
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Oct. 2, 2013, 11:32 a.m.

Death-pen­alty op­pon­ents may have an­oth­er talk­ing point to add to their grow­ing list of griev­ances about cap­it­al pun­ish­ment: Just 2 per­cent of U.S. counties ac­count for most of the coun­try’s death row pop­u­la­tion and ex­e­cu­tions, ac­cord­ing to a study re­leased today by the Death Pen­alty In­form­a­tion Cen­ter.

Through last year, 62 counties — or about 2 per­cent of the na­tion’s 3,143 — have ex­ecuted 685 death-row in­mates, or 52 per­cent, of the 1,320 total in the U.S. since cap­it­al pun­ish­ment was re­in­stated in 1976. Texas’s Har­ris County, which com­prises Hou­s­ton, led all counties with 115 ex­e­cu­tions. Dal­las County was second with 50.

“The death pen­alty in prac­tice has proved to be ad­min­istered un­fairly, and this is an­oth­er ex­ample of that,” Richard Di­eter, DPIC’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “The the­ory is the worst of the worst get the death pen­alty, but the real­ity is those that do are in high urb­an cit­ies where pro­sec­utors have lots of re­sources.”

Death-pen­alty de­bates of­ten get re­duced to a break­down of which states still ex­ecute (32) and which don’t (18). It’s gen­er­ally known that a hand­ful of states such as Texas, Flor­ida, and Ohio carry out the ma­jor­ity of ex­e­cu­tions, but the county-by-county break­down, like one might find in an ana­lys­is of pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, provides more in­sight on the geo­graph­ic­ally small foot­print of cap­it­al pun­ish­ment in the U.S.

Eighty-five per­cent of counties, in­clud­ing a ma­jor­ity in Texas, have not had an ex­e­cu­tion in 40 years. Four of 254 counties in Texas have amassed about half of all the state’s ex­e­cu­tions.

And while a small per­cent­age of counties are car­ry­ing out the bulk of ex­e­cu­tions, the eco­nom­ic bur­dens of the death pen­alty are shared by tax­pay­ers across the state. The re­port con­cludes:

This pe­cu­li­ar ex­er­cise of dis­cre­tion res­ults in enorm­ous ex­penses be­ing passed on to tax­pay­ers across the state. Moreover, the cor­rel­a­tion between the high use of the death pen­alty and a high rate of er­ror means that courts in these states will be oc­cu­pied for years with costly ap­peals and re­tri­als. Some states have re­cently chosen to opt out of this pro­cess, at great sav­ings to their tax­pay­ers.

The un­even con­cen­tra­tion of death-row in­mates and ex­e­cu­tions does not ap­pear to be abat­ing; if any­thing, it’s get­ting worse. Nine counties were re­spons­ible for 35 per­cent of death sen­tences in the U.S. last year, and 10 ac­coun­ted for 27 per­cent of all death row in­mates at the start of 2013.

Twenty-eight people have been ex­ecuted this year, com­pared with 43 in 2012 and 2011, and a re­cord-high 98 in 1999.

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