Death Penalty UnevenWhere you live is a factor in whether you die
12:00 AM CDT on Saturday, July 28, 2007
Thirty-five years ago this summer, the Supreme Court struck down state death penalty laws because the punishment was handed out too arbitrarily. At the time, few rules were in place for how and when a jury could apply the ultimate punishment.
States rewrote their laws, and executions resumed just a few years later. But one very simple measure – geography – indicates that the death penalty is still just as arbitrary as it was in 1972.
This week marked the 100th execution of a Texas inmate convicted and sentenced by a Harris County jury. This one county has sent more people to the death chamber than any other state.
The uneven distribution in death sentences is disturbing and one of the reasons this editorial board has reversed its longtime support of the death penalty. It seems unjust that serial killers rot in prison while an armed robber who takes one life is executed when the deciding factor can be as simple as where they committed their crimes.
In some counties, district attorneys don't even bring life-or-death decisions to juries. They avoid seeking the death penalty because of the cost and complexity of the cases and the necessary appeals. While a large county can take on more capital cases, that does not fully explain the vast difference between Harris County and the rest of the country. Why are so many killers there sent to death row?
Maybe because Houston and Dallas are large cities with murder rates far higher than other Texas cities? More killers, more death sentences. That makes sense – until you consider that Harris County inmates on death row outnumber their peers from Dallas County 125 to 45.
Besides, noting Houston's higher-than-average murder rate undermines the argument that the death penalty deters crime. If that were true, Houston probably wouldn't have the fifth-highest murder rate among U.S. cities over 500,000 in population, according to the 2006 preliminary FBI crime statistics.
Sadly, this peculiar cycle of violence is not likely to be broken any time soon. Lady Justice wears a blindfold, but she seems to know when she's in Houston, and she acts differently there. U.S EXECUTIONS SINCE 1976
Harris County, 100
North Carolina, 43
South Carolina, 37