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Study: 2 percent of counties responsible for majority of U.S. executions

More than half of the executions carried out in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 stem from murder cases in just 2 percent of the nation’s counties representing 15 percent of the population, according to a new study by the Death Penalty Information Center.

A small number of aggressive county prosecutors are bringing disproportionate numbers of expensive cases whose costs are shared by taxpayers across the 32 states with death-penalty statutes, according to Richard Dieter, author of the study. And “the disparate and highly clustered use of the death penalty raises serious questions of unequal and arbitrary application of the law. Death penalties depend more on the location of the county line than on the severity of the crime.”

For example, “about one-quarter of Ohio’s death row inmates come from Hamilton County (Cincinnati), but only 9 percent of the state’s murders occur there,” the study said, citing a newspaper report on the geography of the death penalty from 1999, which covers a period when much of Ohio’s current death row was built.

Hamilton County is 16th in the nation for executions since 1976, with 10. Cuyahoga County is 29th with seven and Summit County is 36th with six, according to the study, released last week. They are among 62 counties that sent to their deaths 685 of the 1,320 convicted murderers executed since 1976. That equates to 2 percent of the nation’s counties responsible for 52 percent of executions.

The study said 2 percent of counties representing a quarter of the nation’s population are responsible for 56 percent of the 1,754 convicts on death row as of Jan. 1, including Hamilton County at 17th with 28 inmates, Cuyahoga at 24th with 23, Franklin County at 45th with 12 and Lucas County at 55th with 10.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Monday he doesn’t find the statistics surprising. His office in April released a study showing nearly 56 percent of all of Ohio’s violent felony convictions happened in Cuyahoga, Hamilton, Summit, and Franklin counties.

Those counties, along with Montgomery, Stark, Lucas, Lorain, Butler, Lake, Clark, and Mahoning, account for 83 percent of violent crime, DeWine’s study found.

“I would be willing to bet the vast amount of violent crime that occurs in the nation occurs in 2 percent of the counties,” DeWine said.

He acknowledged, though, that some of the clustering results from the “charging philosophy of prosecutors.” Some prosecutors may seek more capital murder indictments and use them in plea bargaining.

Dayton attorney Jon Paul Rion, who serves on a death penalty review task force assembled by the Ohio Supreme Court, said prosecutorial discretion is a big factor in the death penalty’s geographical disparities. He said Cuyahoga County has charged 10 times more suspects with capital murder than Hamilton County because past prosecutors routinely used it as a bargaining chip. Other counties rarely use it because of prosecutors’ moral objections or because death penalty cases are more costly.

The task force has sought to reduce disparities by recommending in June that Ohio’s death penalty statute be changed to eliminate provisions that give prosecutors the most discretion in adding death penalty specifications.

Under current law, the death penalty can be invoked in murders of police officers and certain other officials, and children under 13, murders for hire and murders with multiple victims. It can also be sought in aggravated murders that occur during the commission of certain other violent crimes, including rape, kidnapping and aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary and aggravated arson. The task force recommended dropping that set of specifications, saying it can lead to geographical and racial disparities in application of the death penalty.

In the new study, Texas counties led the listings, with Houston’s Harris County alone responsible for 115 executions. In second place was Dallas County with 50 inmates executed. Seven of the top 10 counties for executions are in Texas, as are 24 of the top 62.

Los Angeles County put the most inmates, 228, on death row, followed by Harris County, Texas, with 101. California has the nation’s largest death row, with more than 700 condemned inmates, but the state is under a court-ordered moratorium and hasn’t executed anyone in seven years.

No Miami Valley counties were in the top 2 percent, either for executions or death sentences. There are 139 inmates, all but one of them men, on Ohio’s death row. The state has executed 52 men since it resumed executions in 1999.

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