"Only 2% of the counties in the U.S. have been responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976. Likewise, only 2% of the counties are responsible for the majority of today's death row population," the report says.
There is little correlation between the counties that condemn the most prisoners to die and those that execute the most. That may reflect the differences between the judges who hear inmates' appeals: In California, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, and the often liberal state appellate judges; in Texas, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, and conservative state appellate jurists. Prisoners can challenge their convictions and sentences with multiple appeals through state and federal courts.
Since 1976, Texas has executed 502 convicts, while California has put 13 to death. The report lists 62 counties that are responsible for the most executions, none of which are in California. . .
At the start of 2013, the counties that had sent the most inmates to death row across the nation were Los Angeles, [CA] 228; Harris (Houston), Texas, 101; Philadelphia, [PA] 88; Maricopa, Ariz., 81; Riverside, [CA] 76; Clark, Nev., 61; Orange, [CA] 61; Duval, Fla., 60; Alameda, [CA] 42; San Diego, [CA] 40; San Bernardino, [CA] 37; and Sacramento, [CA] 35.
Nine of the top counties for executions were in Texas or Oklahoma. Harris was first with 115, followed by Dallas County, Texas, with 50.
Why are death row inmates from so few counties?
A lot of this is an artifact of several key facts.
1. Population is distributed very unevenly between countries with most people living in a small number of high population counties, and the vast number of counties having very small populations. Half of the U.S. population lives in 146 counties out of more than 3000 in the United States (about 5%).
2. Many states don't have a death penalty at the state level (or have it only for extremely rare crimes like treason) including many states with high population metropolitan areas like the states that include New York and Boston and Chicago and most of their suburbs.
3. Murders are concentrated disproportionately to population in central cities of metropolitan areas so suburban counties in any given metropolitan area have far fewer death eligible cases.
4. Many central cities where many death eligible murders are committed have liberal jury pools with less conservative locally appointed or elected district attorneys that are disinclined to impose the death penalty.
For example, Denver has few death penalty cases despite having many cases eligible for it for this reason, while suburban Denver's Arapahoe County with more conservative jury pools and DAs has had more death penalty cases despite having few death eligible murders.
The high rates of death penalty imposition in many Western U.S. counties (just three are not in California, Arizona or Nevada) flows to a great extent from the fact that the West has many large countries that encompass both central cities that are home to many murders and suburbs that provide less liberal jury pools.
5. Public defenders in capital cases receive adequate funding in most Northern and Western states that have the death penalty, so fewer death penalty prosecutions result in death penalty verdicts in those states than in Southern states that have the death penalty where public defenders are routinely underfunded or just plain incompetent. This plays out at the trial and appellate levels combined. In non-Southern states, public defenders can often establish colorable grounds for reversible error on appeal even when they lose, giving appellate counsel something to work with later on.
The Appellate Process Drive's Execution Rates and Influences Death Row Sizes
The article is largely correct in attributing the high execution rates of nine of the top counties were individuals convicted there were sentenced to death to appellate court procedures and personnel, at both the state and federal appellate court levels. Senatorial privileges with respect to federal appellate court appointments afforded to impacted Senators is a major factor in explaining the disparity in death penalty case treatment between federal circuits.
Death row inmates are concentrated in states that rarely carry out executions swiftly, and thus they are not emptied as rapidly as they are in states like Texas in which appellate delays from sentence to execution are shorter. Also, a number of states where death penalties were imposed subsequently had Governors commute all death sentences to life in prison, further concentrating death row inmates in states where this has not happened. This is a quite plausible possible end game in California's death row conundrum.