Five District Attorneys Put the Equivalent of 1 out Every 7 People on Death Row; Death Sentencing Dramatically Declined After They Left Office
Cambridge, Mass. — In anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark death penalty decision, Gregg v. Georgia, Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project released a new report identifying America’s five deadliest head prosecutors out of the thousands that have held that office across the country in the last 40 years. Three of the five prosecutors (Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina; Donnie Myers of Lexington, South Carolina; and Bob Macy of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma) personally obtained more than 35 death sentences each, while the other two (Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania and Johnny Holmes of Harris County, Texas) oversaw District Attorney offices that obtained more than 100 and 200 death sentences respectively during their tenures. All together, these five prosecutors have put the equivalent of 1 out of every 7 people currently on death row.
The report notes that these “overzealous” personalities disproportionately drove up death sentencing rates in their counties and their states–leaving an outsized impact on death sentencing statistics nationwide.
“The legitimacy of the death penalty is seriously undermined when it is only being used in a small handful of places by an even smaller group of prosecutors who continually engage in misconduct,” said Robert J. Smith, a legal fellow at Harvard Law School and one of the report’s researchers.
“This report suggests that the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality adopted by a small group of prosecutors has led to shockingly high rates of prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions,” notesHarvard Law Professor Ronald Sullivan.
- Three of the top five deadliest prosecutors (Macy, Britt, and Myers) had misconduct found by courts in 33%, 37%, and 46% of their death penalty cases respectively. (Rates are not available for the other two prosecutors who oversaw, but did not personally try, all of the death penalty cases in their counties.)
- Four of the five deadliest district attorneys prosecuted, or oversaw the prosecution of, eight individuals who were later exonerated and released from death row. This total represents approximately one out of every 20 death row exonerations that have occurred nationwide. Two of these exonerations were from Robeson County, North Carolina (Henry McCollum and Leon Brown).
- Together, these five prosecutors obtained a total of 440 death sentences, which is equivalent to approximately 15% of the current U.S. death row population, or approximatelyone out of every seven people currently sentenced to death. Joe Freeman Britt was responsible for 38 of those sentences.
- When four of the five deadliest prosecutors left office (the fifth prosecutor is still in office), death sentencing dramatically declined in these jurisdictions, indicating that it was these individual personalities, not an excessive attachment to the death penalty by local residents, that drove up the rates of death sentencing.
- With the District Attorney’s office under Britt’s control, a person in Robeson County was almost 100 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a randomly selected person in the United States.
- What’s even more striking is that in the 27 years before Britt’s arrival, no one in Robeson County had been sentenced to death, and with Britt out of office, Robeson County has imposed only two death sentences in the past decade.
“Robeson County has only had two death sentences in the last decade, compared to the average of nearly three per year that were obtained while Joe Freeman Britt was District Attorney. While other factors have contributed to this decrease, it is clear that Britt had an outsized impact on the death sentencing in North Carolina and nationwide,” notes Ken Rose, an attorney who represented Mr. McCollum for 20 years.
The report also names five additional District Attorneys who have earned a reputation in their respective states for their zealous pursuit of death sentences, and provides a snapshot of three active prosecutors who, if they continue on their current trajectories, may soon join the ranks of the deadliest prosecutors in America.
Gregg v. Georgia was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on July 2, 1976, and effectively reauthorized the use of the death penalty in America, ushering in the modern death penalty era.
About the Fair Punishment Project:
The Fair Punishment Project uses legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable. As a joint initiative of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute, we work to highlight the gross injustices resulting from prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias, and to illuminate the laws that result in excessive punishment. For more information visit: www.fairpunishment.org.