A handful of counties are keeping the death penalty alive

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The death penalty, it seems, is slowly dying. Public support for capital punishment in the U.S. is lower today than it has been in more than four decades: 49 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for defendants convicted of murder, versus 80 percent in 1994. Amid that declining support, a handful of counties across the country are clinging to the practice and regularly doling out death sentences. In 2015, death sentences were issued in only 33 counties out of the 3,143 counties in the U.S. Just 16 of those 33 imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015, according to a report published Wednesday by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project.

"This is about overzealous prosecutors paired with severely inadequate defense lawyering in most of the counties," Rob Smith, director of the Fair Punishment Project, told TakePart. Among the counties were Pinellas, Florida; Jefferson, Alabama; and San Bernardino, California.

The report is the second half of the project's in-depth examination of where the use of the death penalty is concentrated and why. Focusing on eight counties in Texas, Alabama, Florida, and California in the newest report, researchers reviewed all the appellate opinions of the states' supreme courts between 2010 and 2015 to uncover commonalities.

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Dave Atwood, left, and Sophia Malik, right, both of Houston, hold photos of Napoleon Beazley as they protest his execution Tuesday, May 28, 2002, in Huntsville, Texas. Beazley, 25, was executed by lethal injection for the 1994 carjacking murder of 63-year-old John E. Luttig of Tyler, Texas. It was the 14th execution this year in Texas. (AP Photo/Brett Coomer)
Rena, left, and Ireland Beazley hold a photo of their son Napoleon Beazley at their home in Grapeland, Texas, Friday, May 31, 2002. Napoleon Beazley's death sentence for killing the father of a federal judge during a 1994 carjacking at age 17 stirred national debate over capital punishment for youths. (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)
Rena Beazley, left, and her husband, Ireland, from Grapeland, Texas, are shown in the audience during a news conference Thursday, May 23, 2002, in Austin, Texas. The two, parents of Texas death row inmate Napoleon Beazley, and clergy pleaded for his sentence to be commuted to life in prison. He is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Tuesday. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)

Mugshot of Cameron Todd Willingham

(Photo credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

Judy Cavnar, of Ardmore, Okla., a cousin of executed Texas prison inmate Cameron Todd Willingham, displays a picture of him during a news conference Tuesday, May 2, 2006, in Austin, Texas. The case of a Willingham, who maintained his innocence until the end but was executed after he was convicted of an arson murder, is going before a new state commission required to look into allegations of forensic misconduct. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
Eugenia Willingham of Ardmore, Okla., right, wipes a tear as she speaks during a news conference Tuesday, May 2, 2006, in Austin, Texas. Willingham and other relatives of Cameron Todd Willingham recounted the final moments of Willingham's life and their unsuccessful attempts to block his execution. The New York-based Innocence Project submitted the case to the Texas Forensic Science Commission on Tuesday and also asked the panel to review arson convictions statewide. In the background, from left are Willingham's cousins, Pat Cox, and Judy Cavnar. Mrs. Willingham is his stepmother. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
Death row inmate Troy Davis appears in this undated file photo provided by the Georgia Department of Corrections. (Georgia Department of Corrections/MCT via Getty Images)
Demonstrators gather in front of the White House in Washington as they hold a vigil before the scheduled execution of death row inmate Troy Davis, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. Davis is facing lethal injection for killing an off-duty Georgia policeman in Savannah, a crime he and others have insisted for years that he did not commit. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
A man chants during a vigil for Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis In Jackson, Ga., Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. Davis is scheduled to die Wednesday for the killing off-duty Savannah officer Mark MacPhail. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Anne MacPhail pauses for a moment after learning at 10:55 p.m., on September 21, 2011, that the U.S. Supreme Court had denied a stay of execution for Troy Davis, who was convicted in the 1989 murder of her son Mark MacPhail. Davis was executed shortly after in Jackson, Georgia. (Robin Trimarchi/Columbus Ledger-Enquirer/MCT via Getty Images)

Mugshot of Kelly Renee Gissendaner

(Photo credit: Georgia Department of Corrections)


In the counties that sentenced five or more people to death over this five-year period, the report's authors noted persistent patterns of racial bias, ineffective defense lawyers, and "overzealous" prosecutors. The researchers also found that more than half of the defendants sentenced to death in these counties had significant mental impairments. Seventy-three of the defendants were people of color, and 46 percent were black.

"It's not an accident that many of these counties have had ongoing struggles with racial fairness and equality, and those are the same places that are holding on to the death penalty," said Smith. Alabama's Jefferson County is home to Birmingham, the site of some of the civil rights movement's most influential protests. Florida, which is home to four counties on the report's list, is the state with the third-largest number of hate groups in the country, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, including active Ku Klux Klan and black separatist groups. Florida falls behind Texas and California, both of which also have counties on this list.

Smith also noted that people of color are routinely excluded from juries in these jurisdictions, interfering "with the ability of communities most impacted by violence to take part in governing themselves." The dismissal of black jurors from juries that decide cases involving black defendants is a national problem and directly contributes to the racial disparities in death sentences illustrated by this report.

Alabama and Florida share another distinction when it comes to juries: They are the only two states in the country that permit nonunanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases. Five of the 16 counties studied by the Fair Punishment Project were in those states, and of the 71 cases reviewed in those counties, 89 percent had nonunanimous verdicts. Until August, Delaware also allowed non-unanimous verdicts in capital trials. On Aug. 2, the state's supreme court ruled the statute that allowed such verdicts unconstitutional and struck it down.

"One of the biggest reasons you see so many death sentences in those counties is because they don't require a unanimous cross-section of the community to agree," said Smith. "Juries sometimes debate these cases for less than an hour because they don't need to reach unanimity to decide if someone lives or dies."

Of all the states that are home to the counties studied in these reports, Florida boasts the most. The state's Duval, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, and Pinellas counties lead Florida's death sentencing practice. Since the state resumed executions in the 1970s, ninety-two people have been executed, and 26 have been exonerated, according to Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

"No one knows how many more innocent people are on death row, or God forbid, have been executed," Elliott said in a statement.

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