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Half of all death penalties in U.S. occur in only two percent of all counties

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
October 3rd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A new study dispels the myth that the death penalty is carried out throughout the United States. In fact, it has been proven that more than half of all executions stem from cases in only two percent of counties. This flies in the face of the estimation that the death penalty in America has wide public support.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - In spite of this, taxpayers nationwide have shouldered the estimated $25 billion cost of death row sentences since 1973, the study has found.

The study also showed that death sentences are at their lowest level in four decades. Furthermore, 85 percent of all counties have not had a single person executed in more than 45 years.

The study did find that criminal offenders in the states of California, Texas, Oklahoma and Florida have a disproportionate chance of ending up on death row. Even then only a small number of counties remain responsible for the wide majority of death penalty sentences in the U.S.

Only 62 of the 3,143 counties in the U.S. were responsible for 52 percent of all death row inmates executed since 1976.

"People here believe in the death penalty but not in a death penalty that's unfair," Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center and the study's author says. "And that's the one that exists in practice."

The Southern states account for more than 80 percent of executions, with Texas leading at 38 percent. Even then, great internal disparities exist in these states.

"It appears in clusters, in certain cities, in certain counties," he said. Only four counties - Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Bexar account for almost half of the state's executions, but only represent 34 percent of the population.

Just three counties in California in 2009 - Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside, accounted for more than 80 percent of the state's executions, but represented less than half of the population.

Dieter acknowledges the strong support for capital punishment based upon religious grounds, but says that his research also revealed another, more hidden reason for the regional discrepancy.

The decision to seek the death penalty rests with a single prosecutor, Dieter says. The prosecutor is highly unlikely to be held accountable in the case that his judgment appears misguided. Subjective interpretations on whether the crime was "heinous, cruel or atrocious," an aggravating circumstance necessary to justify pursuing the death penalty, can lead to various outcomes.

"The discretion to seek the death penalty is totally within the prosecutor's realm and that's where abuse may come in," he said. "Obviously as an individual, he might have biases," Dieter added.

Race and geography appear to be more significant in a prosecutor's decision than the actual severity of the crime, the report found.

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