Attorneys and scholars are raising arguments about the arbitrariness of the death penalty by pointing to inconsistencies in death sentences that appear to be based on the politics of individual prosecutors and factors like the demographic and economic makeup of a county. Nationwide, just 2% of all murders in death penalty states result in a death sentence, and the data shows that geography – rather than the nature of the crime – is the primary factor that determines who lives and who dies.
Data from the American Judicature Society reveals that only 10% of U.S. counties accounted for all of the death sentences imposed between 2004 and 2009, and only 5% of the counties accounted for all of the death sentences imposed between 2007 and 2009.
Murders in those counties were not more aggravated than murders in other counties, but researchers found that some prosecutors seek death in their jurisdictions while other prosecutors in the rest of the state do not seek death for similar, or even more heinous, murders.
An 2001 investigation in Indiana found that seeking the death penalty depended on the views of individual prosecutors and the financial resources of the county in which the crime was committed. Two Indiana counties have produced nearly as many death sentences as the rest of the state combined.
In Maryland, for many years almost all of the death cases came from predominantly white Baltimore County, and almost none from predominantly Black Baltimore City. In 2002, Baltimore City had only one person on Maryland’s death row, but suburban Baltimore County, with one-tenth as many murders as Baltimore, had nine times as many people on death row.
Death penalty prosecutions in Missouri also illustrate the county-by-county arbitrariness seen across the country. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, whose jurisdiction covers the city, has never taken a capital case to trial since her election in 2001, but Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, whose jurisdiction is the neighboring suburban county, has obtained death sentences against ten people since 2000, although the county has only one-fourth as many murders as the city.
One California study found that a person convicted of the same crime in that state is more than three times more likely to be sentenced to die simply because the crime was committed in a predominantly white, rural community rather than a diverse, urban area.
These disparities, researchers and lawyers argue, raise the disturbing possibility that decisions about who lives and who dies may be guided more by the philosophical predilections of individual prosecutors than the culpability of individual defendants.
Geographic Disparities in Alabama
In Alabama, which has the nation’s highest per capita death sentencing rate, just a handful of the state’s 67 counties account for the majority of current death sentences in the state.
In contrast, 23 Alabama counties have not imposed the death penalty.
Jefferson County alone has 36 people on death row – more than several states combined.
Houston County, with approx. 89,000 residents, has 19 people on Alabama’s death row. The predominantly white county has a per capita death sentencing rate nearly five times that of the state as a whole.