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Report Names America's "Deadliest" Prosecutors

A new report looks at the influence a handful of prosecutors have had on the death penalty. (Greg Stotelmyer)
A new report looks at the influence a handful of prosecutors have had on the death penalty. (Greg Stotelmyer)
July 11, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. - Capital punishment has become increasingly rare in the U.S., but it's still legal in 31 states including Kentucky. A new report examines 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 said only a few are responsible for a disproportionate number of death sentences.

Rob Smith, the director of Harvard University Law School Fair Punishment Project, and the report's co-author, 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."

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling which effectively reauthorized the use of capital punishment. Since that 1975 ruling, there have been three executions in Kentucky, the last in 2008.

With election season in full swing, Smith notes 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 believes this is a dangerous oversight.

Smith added, "These are the people 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?'"

The report identifies what it calls "America's five deadliest head prosecutors," claiming together they have put the equivalent of one out of every seven people currently on death row. They are from Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina.

The full report can be read online here.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY