POLITICS
11/25/2013 01:15 pm ET

Counties That Send The Most People To Death Row Show A Questionable Commitment To Justice

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Last week, I looked at a recent study by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) which finds that the vast majority of executions and death row inmates come from a very small percentage of counties across the country.

My prior post looked specifically at the counties responsible for the most executions. (These would be the counties where prosecutors won death sentences, not where the executions themselves took place.) Contrary to the assertion from death penalty advocates that prosecutors in these counties should be commended for "doing their job," I noted these counties also tend to have troubling records of misconduct and exonerations.

This week, I want to look at the other list in the DPIC study -- the counties that have sent the most people to death row. This is a different list, as these counties tend to be in states that aren't nearly as eager to execute as, say, Texas or Florida. They tend to be conservative counties in more left-leaning states, or counties overseen by appeals courts more skeptical of capital punishment. So they're sending people to die, but those people aren't getting executed. And just as we found with the counties that lead the country in executions, the counties most responsible for populating death rows across America also have unsettling records of misconduct and exonerations. Here's a look at a few that top the list:

Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania

All the way back in 1993, a Pennsylvania Superior Court judge noted in overturning a mob murder conviction that, 'Prosecutorial misconduct seems to arise in Philadelphia County more so than any other county in the commonwealth." It also happens to be the county most likely to send people to death row -- and, as the DPIC report notes, the county that pays its capital defense attorneys less than any other county in the state.

Back when that 1993 opinion came out, Philadelphia officials denied the county had any problem with prosecutor misconduct. Fast forward 20 years. Last month, after another series convictions were thrown out due to prosecutorial misconduct, the Innocence Project publicly called for Philadelphia County to once again go back and look at cases dating back 30 years. And once again, Philadelphia County District Attorney Seth Williams insisted that there's nothing to worry about. (Williams himself recently pressed charges against a man for, essentially, proving that some Philadelphia police are ignorant of their own state's gun laws.)

But Philadelphia County's ranking on the death row list is largely due to former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who took over the position in 1991. Abraham, the first woman to hold the position in the county's history, was so aggressive in seeking death sentences that she earned the nickname "Queen of Death." A 2007 study by the Center for Public Integrity found 67 cases in which an appeals court overturned a Pennsylvania conviction due to prosecutorial misconduct. Of those, 41 came out of Philadelphia County.

A few other highlights from Philadelphia:

-- The DA's office withheld exculpatory evidence for more than 20 years after the conviction of Edward Ryder in 1974. Ryder's conviction was overturned in 1996. In 1999, Ryder accepted a plea bargain. In exchange for pleading guilty third-degree murder, he would be re-sentenced to time served and released from prison. Ryder and his attorneys maintained his innocence, and said his plea was the result of a tired man who didn't want to risk going back to prison

-- Just last month, a 22-year assistant prosecutor resigned from the office after she was accused of filling a false 911 report and pressuring a police officer to perjure himself in order to protect her boyfriend. Oddly, the DA's office sees no reason to go back and review her conduct in prior cases.

-- Kenneth Granger was released in 2010 after serving 28 years for a murder he says he didn't commit. It took his attorneys 27 years to get a judge to order the release of files from the district attorney's office and the Philadelphia Police Department that contained exculpatory evidence never given to Granger's attorneys.

-- More recently, last year a jury acquitted Amin Speakes of a 2009 murder. Williams decided to try Speakes even though two time-stamped videos showed he couldn't have committed the murder at the time it happened.

Duval County, Florida

Duval County leads the march to death row in Florida, a state where (a) there have been more death row exonerations than any other state, (b) more people have been sent to death row in the last two years than anywhere else in America, and (c) inexplicably, given (a) and (b), Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a bill to speed up executions by limiting death penalty appeals.

Given it's relatively small population, Duval County has the highest citizens-per-death-row inmate rate in the country. The current state's attorney for the judicial district that includes Duval County is Angela Corey, the prosecutor now best known for prosecuting George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. Corey's indictment of Zimmerman was widely criticized by defense attorneys and legal scholars. One prominent critic was Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. According to Dershowitz, Corey responded to his criticism by threatening to sue him, to sue Harvard University, and attempting to have Dershowitz disbarred. (She has threatened to sue other public critics as well.) She has also been accused of withholding exculpatory evidence in the case, then firing the IT worker in her office who exposed that evidence.

But Corey has a controversial history beyond the Zimmerman-Martin case. She's the prosecutor who won a 20-year prison sentence for Marissa Alexander. The 31-year-old Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadline weapon after she fired a warning shot from a gun at her abusive husband. A state appeals court granted Alexander a new trial in September. Corey won a similar conviction against Ronald Thompson, a 65-year-old man accused of firing warning shots into the ground as some teenagers attempted to force their way into a home belonging to his friend. She has also received criticism for charging a 12-year-old with murder for beating his 2-year-old brother to death, then attempting to try him as an adult.

Duval County was where 15-year-old Brenton Butler was wrongly charged, tried, and ultimately acquitted in the beating deaths of two tourists. His story is the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning. In 2007, Chad Heins was finally cleared of the 1994 murder of his sister-in-law after serving 13 years in prison. Billy Joe Holton may well also be innocent of the 1986 murder for which he was convicted. Last year a judge re-sentenced him to time served plus probation, allowing him to go free. His attorneys are still working to exonerate him completely, over objections from Corey's office.

Florida also has an odd tradition of electing its public defenders. The current head public defender for the district that includes Duval County is Matt Shirk, a guy who ran on a platform of cutting funding to the office, billing indigent defendants who are acquitted for legal services, and was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police (an odd endorsement for a public defender). One of Shirk's first acts was to fire a large portion of the office staff, including the attorneys who had worked to expose the innocence of Brenton Butler.

Maricopa County, Arizona

The home of Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America" also sends convicts to death row by the truckload. Former head prosecutor Andrew Thomas was notoriously ruthless -- at one point he had 149 death penalty cases pending. He also once sought a 90-year prison sentence against a 16-year-old for downloading child pornography. When the boy's attorneys showed that the images were likely the result of malware, Thomas' office pressured him to plead guilty to three felony counts for showing a Playboy magazine to a few classmates.

Thomas also rather infamously used the power of his office to target his critics, at one point setting his sights on the owners of the Phoenix New Times. Thomas was eventually stripped of his law license, notably for abuses of power related to his targeting of political opponents, not for his conduct in day-to-day criminal cases.

Last month, an investigative series by the Arizona Republic found that of the 42 cases in which an Arizona convict sentenced to death alleged prosecutorial misconduct, 33 occurred in Maricopa County. The series include one installment devoted solely to former Maricopa County prosecutor Juan Martinez, who sent eight people to death row, and in 1999 was named the state's "prosecutor of the year." Martinez has since been cited for misconduct by Arizona court's three times in the last year.

One of the more notorious exonerations from Maricopa County was that of Ray Krone, convicted in 1991 of murdering a Phoenix bartender. The conviction was based almost entirely on testimony from a "bite mark specialist" linking Krone's teeth to tooth marks on the victim. Krone served 10 years in prison, including four on death row, before he was exonerated by DNA testing. His attorneys later found evidence that prosecutors had withheld evidence of his innocence. In 2005, Krone won a $4.4 million settlement from Maricopa County. The prosecutors who convicted him were never disciplined. His case was later used to illustrate the junk science of bite mark testimony.

Current Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery refused to release any prosecutor personnel files for the Arizona Republic investigation, even of prosecutors no longer on the job. To do so, he said, wouldn't be in "the best interests of justice.” Earlier this month, the Arizona Supreme Court released new ethical guidelines stating that if prosecutors discover evidence of a convict's innocence, they must turn it over to his attorneys. (Previously, they were only obligated to do so before conviction.) Montgomery opposed the new rule.

Among the other counties with prolific histories of sending people to death row . . .

-- Riverside County, California, recently had to review more than 3,000 cases after a defense attorney that prosecutors hadn't disclosed that a crime lab technician had admitted to fraud, forgery, and perjury.

-- In Santa Clara, County, California, one prosecutor was rebuked by the state bar, and the office itself had to review thousands of sex crime cases, again due to the office's failure to disclose exculpatory evidence. In 2009, defense attorneys discovered that they hadn't been informed about hundreds of cases in which crime lab technicians had disagreed over fingerprint patches. Santa Clara County DA Dolores Carr responded to these scandals by attempting to boycott the judges holding her office accountable, and then by attempting to strip the state bar of its power to discipline prosecutors.

-- Kern County, California has seen more than two dozen exonerations resulting from the ritual sex abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s. Some were parent who went to prison after they were falsely convicted of sexually abusing their own children.

-- Between 1997 and 2009, prosecutors in Orange County, California, were cited for misconduct 58 times. One deputy district attorney in particular -- Michael Flory -- had been cited multiple times, and had his conduct deemed "unacceptable" by appeals court judges. He was never disciplined. The Orange County Register reported in January that despite nine exonerations since 1995 based on faulty eyewitness testimony, "the Orange County district attorney has not pushed for" simple reforms to eyewitness procedures that criminologists say would radically improve their reliability. (But would of course also make it more difficult to win convictions.)

Looking back at both lists, it's far from clear, then, that execution-friendly prosecutors are "just doing their jobs." On the contrary, the counties most eager to execute seem to also have produced conviction cultures in which prosecutors have frequently been found to have bent the rules in pursuit of convictions -- and convicted the wrong people in the process.

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