A small number of prosecutors account for a hugely disproportionate number of death sentences; a recent study found that just three prosecutors personally obtained a combined total of 131 death sentences, the equivalent of one in every 25 people on death row in America today. Dramatic geographic disparities in the imposition of the death penalty and excessive sentences for a range of offenses are largely due to prosecutors who exercise their discretion with harsh results. Amid increasing concern about excessive punishment, mass incarceration, and the need for a more sensible criminal justice system, prosecutors who pursue extreme punishment are losing the support of voters.
On Tuesday, incumbent Angela Corey was defeated in the primary election for Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit state attorney. In her decades as a high-profile prosecutor, Ms. Corey became known for excessively seeking the death penalty and prosecuting very young children in adult court. Her decision to bring a murder charge against 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez in adult court, where he faced a life sentence without parole, and her successful pursuit of a 20-year sentence for Marissa Alexander, a woman with no criminal record who had fired a warning shot at her abusive husband, were among the cases that generated national attention and controversy about Ms. Corey. She is the first incumbent state attorney in modern history to lose a contested election in Florida.
Also in Florida, a first-time candidate for Orlando-area state attorney defeated incumbent Jeff Ashton in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Mr. Ashton aggressively sought the death penalty, even after the Supreme Court struck down Florida’s capital punishment statute, and he resisted using civil citations instead of arresting children, saying police may need to handcuff 10-year-olds “for the safety of the officer.”
This week’s upsets in Florida are the latest examples of voters ousting prosecutors who have cultivated reputations for seeking the harshest available sentences.
Last fall, voters in Louisiana’s Caddo Parish elected their first African American district attorney after Dale Cox, the acting district attorney, declined to run. Mr. Cox obtained more than a third of Louisiana’s death sentences from 2010 to 2015, making Caddo Parish an outlier where, from 2010 to 2014, more people were sentenced to death per capita than in any other county in the United States, among counties with four or more death sentences in that period. He said he was forced out of the race for chief prosecutor after his comment that Louisiana needs to “kill more people” received national media coverage.
Prosecutors also face scrutiny from voters concerned about police misconduct. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez lost the Democratic primary in March after she mishandled the prosecution of Dante Servin, an off-duty police detective who fatally shot a 22-year-old woman while firing into a crowd from inside his car, and waited more than a year to charge the Chicago police officer who killed teenager Laquan McDonald.
Cleveland’s chief prosecutor, Tim McGinty, came under fire for advocating against charges for the two police officers involved in the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. He lost the Democratic primary in March.
Forty percent of all elected local prosecutors – 935 prosecutors across the country – are up for election this year. In his speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama urged advocates for criminal justice reform to voice their concerns at the polls.
“If you want more justice in the justice system, then we’ve all got to vote — not just for a president, but for mayors, and sheriffs, and state’s attorneys, and state legislators,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s where the criminal law is made. And we’ve got to work with police and protesters until laws and practices are changed. That’s how democracy works.”