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Report: Maricopa County in Top 10 List for Death Penalty Use

Photo: According to a new report, Maricopa County is fourth in the nation for pending death penalty cases, and tenth-highest for executions over the last 45 years. Courtesy Death Penalty Information Center.
Photo: According to a new report, Maricopa County is fourth in the nation for pending death penalty cases, and tenth-highest for executions over the last 45 years. Courtesy Death Penalty Information Center.
October 9, 2013

PHOENIX - Not all counties are created equal when it comes to issuing death-penalty sentences in Arizona - or the rest of the nation. Just 2 percent of U.S. counties produce the majority of death-penalty cases.

According to a new report by the Death Penalty Information Center, Maricopa County is fourth-highest in the nation for death-row inmates, and 10th-highest for executions in the past 45 years. Every taxpayer, not just in the county, is paying for the enormous cost of such cases, the report said.

Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, explained why there seems to be a concentration in certain areas.

"The small number of jurisdictions apply the death penalty for some reason," he said, "and I think the reason is the development of a local prosecutorial culture."

Once a death sentence is handed down in a county, Baumgartner said, prosecutors there are more likely to pursue the punishment in another case.

Since 1976, according to the report, four states - Florida, Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma - have been responsible for almost 60 percent of the nation's executions.

Donna Hamm of the prison reform group Middle Ground noted that recent Maricopa County prosecutors, most notably the now-disbarred Andrew Thomas, have made aggressive use of the death penalty part of their election campaigns.

"The only conclusion that can be drawn," she said, "is the much-higher rate of prosecution for death-penalty cases is driven by politics and personal gain, as opposed to authentic harm issues."

At the height of his term, the report said, Thomas had 149 death-penalty cases pending. On a per capita basis, Maricopa County had four times as many cases pending as two other counties known for their high use of capital punishment: Los Angeles County, Calif., and Harris County, Texas.

Most people don't realize that a death-penalty case doesn't end when a jury reaches a verdict, the report said. The high costs continue with state and federal appeals, Hamm said - along with lengthy prison time.

"I think they like to forget about them, but the fact is that those expenses go on and on because of mandatory and justifiable appeals that are in place for the protection of justice," Hamm said.

Taxpayers end up paying an average of $20 million for every death-penalty case that ends with an execution, the report said. If a conviction is overturned on appeal, the cost goes even higher.

The full report is online at deathpenaltyinfo.org.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ