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Counties that Use Death Penalty the Most are Fraught with Error and Misconduct: Harvard Law Study

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A recent study by Harvard Law School finds that, although death sentences have dropped nationwide, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are among an exceedingly small group where capital punishment is apparently bucking the trend.

The report, entitled "Too Broken to Fix: An In-depth Look at America's Outlier Death Penalty Counties," studied the nature and use of the death penalty in all 3,143 county or county equivalents in the United States. According to the numbers, sixteen of those counties imposed the death penalty in the years between 2010 and 2015, inclusive. This one-half of one percent included four counties in Florida (Miami-Dade and Duval are the other two), which is one of only two states in America where juries who hand down death verdicts need not be unanimous.

According to the report, these sixteen "outlier counties" all share common problems - overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense counsel, and racial bias. As a result, researchers found courts in these counties convicting factually innocent individuals and handing down excessively harsh penalties to people with significant impairments, including people with impairments equal to or greater than those that the United States Supreme Court identified are exempt from execution due to lessened culpability.

Researchers studied eight of the "outlier" counties in depth (Duval was the only county within Florida in the study group), focusing upon over two hundred direct appeals opinions written between 2006 and 2015. Their conclusions include the following findings:

  • Sixty percent of the cases examined involved individuals with mitigating circumstances including significant mental impairment.
  • Eighteen percent involved defendants under the age of 21 when the alleged offense was committed.
  • Forty-four percent of the cases involved defendants with brain damage, severe mental illness, intellectual disability, or a similar impairment.
  • Roughly one in every seven cases involved a finding of prosecutorial misconduct.
  • Poor quality defense counsel was a problem across the board. Researchers cite an insufficient amount of time dedicated to the defense's mitigation presentation during the penalty phase as evidence of this.
  • Of all the death sentences handed down between 2010 and 2015, 41 percent were given to African-American defendants, and 69 percent were given to non-whites.
  • The victim's race was a significant factor as well - over two-thirds of the death penalty sentences handed down in the cases studied involved a victim that was Caucasian. In all the cases studied between 2010 and 2015, a total of three Caucasians were sentenced to death for killing an African-American.

Researchers plan to release Part II of the report, which includes Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, next month.

Florida Board Certified Criminal Attorney Bjorn Brunvand has been defending individuals facing the death penalty in the Tampa Bay-area for over two decades. He and the attorneys at his office have the finest team of private investigators, forensic experts, and technology experts to bring to bear against a state or federal capital punishment case. Contact us today to discuss your Tampa Bay-area case.

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  • Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

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