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Report Names "Deadliest" Prosecutors in Florida, Nation

A new report looks at the influence a handful of prosecutors, including two in Florida, have had on the death penalty. (southernfried/morguefile)
A new report looks at the influence a handful of prosecutors, including two in Florida, have had on the death penalty. (southernfried/morguefile)
July 6, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Capital punishment has become increasingly rare in the United States, but it's still legal in several states, including Florida. A new report looks at just how much "life or death" power prosecutors have and how they choose to use it.

Of the thousands of elected and appointed prosecutors in the nation, an analysis by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project has found that only a few are responsible for a disproportionate number of death sentences. Report co-author and project director Rob Smith said the report confirms what many experts believe — that capital punishment really is on its way out.

"The vast majority of prosecutors have, in practice, abandoned the death penalty," he said. "Either they don't seek it, or the jurors in their jurisdictions don't return it. Even in these outlier counties, it's not really that the communities are attached to the death penalty."

Two Florida prosecutors are featured prominently in the report. Retired prosecutor Abe Laeser from Miami-Dade County is among the report's "Top 10 Deadliest Prosecutors in America," for sending more people to death row than any other prosecutor in the state. Bernie de la Rionda from Duval County is one of three current prosecutors the report said is on a trajectory to potentially join that top-10 list.

With election season in full swing, Smith said many voters have a tendency to focus only on the big races at the top of the ballot and not spend as much time educating themselves about local elected officials, including county prosecutors. He said he believes this is a dangerous oversight.

"These are the people," he said, "who are making not only life-and-death decisions, but these decisions about, 'Should a juvenile be incarcerated for the rest of their life? Should we treat juveniles as adults? Who do we send to jail for low-level marijuana violations, and who do we not?' "

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Gregg vs. Georgia, which effectively reauthorized the use of capital punishment, ushering in what is known as the modern death-penalty era.

The report is online at fairpunishment.org. The Gregg vs. Georgia ruling is at oyez.org.

Mona Shand, Public News Service - FL