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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

Racial bias found in Texas death penalty cases, Harvard Law School study says

Texas death chamber
Texas death chamber
Harris County was named 1 of 16 'outlier' counties in the US, where 5 or more death sentences were assessed between 2010 and 2015

A Harvard Law School study has found that racial bias, overly aggressive prosecutions and inadequate representation for poor defendants affect death penalty cases in Harris County, Texas. Juries in the county, which includes Houston, have imposed the death penalty more than any other county in the US since its reinstatement in 1976.

The Fair Punishment Project also notes that the number of death sentences handed down in Harris County has fallen to 10 since 2010, from 53 between 1998 and 2003.

Harris County was named 1 of 16 "outlier" counties in the US, where 5 or more death sentences were assessed in between 2010 and 2015. In the 8 counties examined by the study, 41% of the death sentences were given to black defendants and 69% to minorities overall. In Harris County, all defendants condemned since 2004 were from racial minority groups.

"When you look at what the death penalty actually looks like on the ground in Harris County, you see things that should disturb you," Rob Smith, one of the researchers on the project, told the Houston Chronicle.

"There's a pattern of overzealous prosecution that dates back for decades but is still present in the time period for the study, and is matched by under-zealous [defense] representation in cases."

Harris County district attorney Devon Anderson said her office was judicious in its use of the death penalty.

"When we seek death, it's because we have a solid guilt/innocence case and a very strong punishment case," she said. "The death penalty is only appropriate for the worst of the worst."

Anderson said she did not know the race of a defendant or victim whenever she and 4 top staff members met to discuss whether to seek the death penalty.

"I think it's very important that it be 'blind' in that regard," she said.

Juries across the country are proving to be increasingly reluctant to sentence defendants to death, the Harvard report said, choosing instead the option of life imprisonment without parole.

The last Harris County trial in which prosecutors sought the death penalty ended in November: 28-year-old Jonathan Sanchez was given life without parole. The last Harris County jury to assess a death sentence did so in 2014, when Harlem Lewis was sent to death row for the killings of Bellaire police officer Jimmie Norman and "good samaritan" Terry Taylor.

The Harris County district attorney's office is currently seeking the death penalty in 2 cases. Ronald Haskell, who is white, is accused of killing 2 adults and 4 children from his ex-wife's family in spring 2014. David Ray Conley, who is black, is accused of killing his ex-girlfriend, her husband and 6 children, including his son, last year.

Source: The Guardian, August 28, 2016

Study: Harris County death penalty cases plagued by bias


A Harvard Law School study reports that racial bias, over-aggressive prosecutions and poor representation for indigent defendants plagues the handling of death-penalty cases in the Southeast Texas county where Houston is situated.

The report by the school's Fair Punishment Project names Harris County as one of 16 "outlier" U.S. counties where 5 or more death sentences were assessed in 2010-15.

Harris County juries have imposed death penalties on more defendants than in any other county since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty. The number of death sentences has fallen from 53 in 1998 through 2003 to 10 since 2010. However, all condemned since 2004 are from minorities.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/2brIHX6) her office is judicious in its use of the death penalty.

Source: Associated Press, August 28, 2016

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