The prosecutors who aim to kill…

Via NYT

One kept a paperweight model of an electric chair on his desk. Another boasted about being named the “deadliest prosecutor in America” by the Guinness Book of World Records and mocked defendants with intellectual disabilities. A third was dragged from the courtroom when jurors who acquitted six defendants he had charged with shooting police officers said he approached them and reached for his gun.

These men are members of a very small club: five prosecutors who together are responsible for about one of every seven death-row inmates nationwide.

Even as most states have moved away from capital punishment, the practice continues to be used in a tiny fraction of counties, and under the leadership of specific prosecutors, according to a new report by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School.

The prosecutors are Joe Freeman Britt in North Carolina, Robert Macy in Oklahoma, Donnie Myers in South Carolina, Lynne Abraham in Philadelphia and Johnny Holmes in Texas. Of these five, only Mr. Myers remains in office. But during their tenures, each either secured dozens of death sentences personally or led offices that won hundreds. And each, in his or her way, embodies the vindictive, idiosyncratic nature of state-sanctioned killing.

The five prosecutors also share a disturbing tendency to break the rules to win. Mr. Macy — the one who pulled a gun on the jury — won 54 death sentences during two decades as Oklahoma County’s district attorney. But courts overturned almost half of them, and they found him guilty of misconduct in one-third of them. Three people he sent to death row were later exonerated.

In 2002, a federal appeals court said that Mr. Macy’s persistent misconduct “without doubt harmed the reputation of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.”

Mr. Britt was found to have committed misconduct in more than a third of the 38 death penalty cases he had won; Mr. Myers, in nearly half of his 39 wins. Another prosecutor said of Mr. Myers, “Virtually the only time you see him in the courtroom is when he’s trying to kill people.”

Most revealing, the frequency of death sentences sought and won in these prosecutors’ counties dropped dramatically after they left office. During Mr. Holmes’s 21-year tenure, which ended in 2000, juries in Harris County, Tex., sentenced 201 people to death, almost one a month. Since 2008, the average has been about one a year.

The report identifies eight more recent or current prosecutors who have sought the death penalty far more than their colleagues around the country. And many of their records are rife with misconduct. As long as the death penalty remains legal, people like this will find their way into positions where they have the power to make life-or-death decisions.

The United States is one of the last developed countries to continue killing its citizens in the name of the state, but it is misleading to talk about the death penalty as an American phenomenon. As the report shows, capital punishment today is driven largely by individuals in a few locations. That is, the rate of death sentences has less to do with the crimes of the people being prosecuted than with the men and women doing the prosecuting.

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