by Robert Smith, Director of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School
Last year, in Glossip v. Gross, Justice Stephen Breyer supported his point that the death penalty had become truly unusual in America by noting that “the number of active death penalty counties is small and getting smaller” such that “[o]nly a handful of America’s 3,143 counties use the death penalty with any regularity.” Fast-forward one year. Within the past month, the Court has addressed four death penalty cases stemming from the fifteen active death sentencing counties that Breyer highlighted.
The Court added two of the cases to its merits docket for next term, Moore v. Texas and Buck v. Texas, both out of Harris County, once called the buckle of the death belt. It reversed the death sentence in Lynch v. Arizona, a case out of Maricopa County, the jurisdiction with the second most death sentences in America since 2010. And, finally, in Tucker v. Louisiana, Justices Breyer and Ginsburg renewed their invitation for the Court to revisit the Constitutionality of the death penalty in a dissent from the denial of certiorari which queried “whether “geography” and not the “comparative egregiousness of the crime” best explained Mr. Tucker’s death sentence.
What is going on in these counties? Population and homicide rates explain some of the differences in a few of the largest counties. But even in those places there is a lot left to be explained. Here’s a hint:
A prosecutor named Dale Cox obtained the death sentence against Lamondre Tucker. Cox was responsible for 1/3 of the death sentences in Louisiana between 2010 and 2015. He infamously told a reporter that we “need to kill more people”, told defense lawyers in a capital case that he wanted to “cut their f---ing throats”, and told jurors that Jesus demanded that people like the defendant have a millstone wrapped around their neck and be thrown into the sea. Therefore, Breyer and Ginsburg would have been correct if they had written: it appears as though the personality and predilections of the prosecutor and not the “comparative egregiousness of the crime” best explained Mr. Tucker’s death sentence. The same statement could be said for Lynch, decided the same day as Tucker. Juan Martinez was the trial prosecutor in that case. He is one of a trio of prosecutors that account for 28 percent of Arizona’s death sentences over the past decade. The Arizona Supreme Court has called out Martinez by name, found that he committed misconduct in at least two previous capital cases, and identified at least seventeen instances of Martinez’s inappropriate behavior in the Lynch case alone. And both Bobby Moore (his original sentence) and Duane Buck were sentenced to die during the Johnny Holmes era in Harris County.