New district attorneys in Houston, Oklahoma City, and Philadelphia have dramatically departed from their predecessors’ disproportionate use of the death penalty.
The use of capital punishment varies arbitrarily from county to county, and a small number of jurisdictions are responsible for the vast majority of death sentences imposed nationwide. In fact, just 2 percent of U.S. counties accounted for 56 percent of people under sentence of death as of 2012.
Texas’s Harris County, Oklahoma County, and Philadelphia County were in that 2 percent, due to local district attorneys’ decisions to pursue an unusually high number of death sentences.
Harris County District Attorney Johnny B. Holmes obtained an average 12 death sentences a year between 1992 and 2000. After he retired in 2000, that rate fell by half, and since 2008, when his chosen successor Chuck Rosenthal resigned, Harris County has averaged slightly more than one death sentence a year.
In Oklahoma County, District Attorney Robert Macy obtained 54 death sentences between 1980 and 2001, averaging slightly more than 2.5 per year. Since 2009, only three people have been sentenced to death in Oklahoma County.
Under District Attorney Lynne Abraham, Philadelphia County had an average of 9.5 death sentences a year between 1991 and 2000. She decided not to run again in 2009, and her successor has obtained a total of three death sentences since 2010.
In Houston County, the jury’s rejection of the death penalty in the high-profile case of Andrea Yates, a mentally ill woman convicted in the drowning deaths of her five children, in 2002, together with a 2005 change in the law allowing life without parole sentences as an alternative to death in Texas, likely contributed to the drop in death sentences. Current District Attorney Pat Lykos ran on a reform agenda and promised to create a unit to investigate claims of wrongful convictions; that unit exonerated an innocent man in 2010 after 27 years in prison. Exonerations have dampened public enthusiasm for capital punishment in Texas and around the country.
Similar concerns about the reliability of death sentences likewise contributed to the shift in Oklahoma County, where nearly half of the death sentences obtained by Robert Macy’s office relied on testimony from police chemist Joyce Gilchrist. In 2001, the FBI investigated her cases and found that she had deliberately and repeatedly falsified DNA matches, withheld evidence of innocence, and failed to test samples sent to her lab. In 2007, a man sent to death row from Oklahoma County was exonerated after Gilchrist’s testimony was proven to be fraudulent; eleven others were executed before Gilchrist’s testimony in their cases could be reviewed.
In Philadelphia County, concerns about the extraordinary cost of capital prosecutions and racial bias in the use of the death penalty led to a change in the county’s pursuit of death sentences. One study found that Black defendants were four times more likely than white defendants to receive the death penalty for similar crimes in Philadelphia County. Seth Williams, the current district attorney, vowed to address prosecutors’ problematic relationship with residents of color.
The concerns that have caused support for and use of the death penalty to drop in three of the nation’s highest-use counties are shared by two Supreme Court justices, who raised related questions about the constitutionality of the death penalty this term.