BOSTON, Aug. 23 (UPI) -- The number of death sentences in the United States has declined significantly since 1976, but the few remaining are clustered primarily in two states -- Alabama and Florida, Harvard's Fair Punishment Project said in a report released Tuesday.
"Across the country, the death penalty is on life support," the researchers said.
Last year, juries returned the fewest number of death sentences since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 -- 49. That represents a decline of 50 percent since 2009 when there were 118 death sentences. And in 1996, there were 315. And only 14 of the 31 states with the death penalty imposed at least one capital sentence.
The project, titled "Too Broken to Fix: Part 1" broke down the numbers by county,
Of 3,143 country or county equivalents, just 16 imposed imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015.
Six counties were in Alabama (Jefferson, Mobile) and Florida (Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Pinellas). These are the only states that permit non-unanimous death verdicts.
In Florida, only 10 jurors need to agree to the death sentence. But in May, Florida Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch declared its latest death penalty law in violation of the state's constitution. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state's death sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries.
Of the remaining 10 counties, five are located in highly populated Southern California (Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino). The others are in Louisiana (Caddo), Nevada (Clark), Texas (Dallas, Harris), and Arizona (Maricopa).
The report, in the first part, examined half of them -- Caddo, Clark, Duval, Harris, Maricopa, Mobile, Kern and Riverside.
"Our review reveals that these counties frequently share at least three systemic deficiencies: a history of overzealous prosecutions, inadequate defense lawyering and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion," the report said. "These structural failings regularly produce two types of unjust outcomes which disproportionately impact people of color: the wrongful conviction of innocent people and the excessive punishment of persons who are young or suffer from severe mental illnesses, brain damage, trauma and intellectual disabilities."
The report noted that with 14,000 homicides a year and only 49 death sentences last year, "it is safe to conclude that most prosecutors do not seek the death penalty in most of the cases in which the punishment is available."
But the report found that it's not prosecutorial restraint. "Our research doesn't support this claim," the report said. "Since 1976, the year capital punishment resumed in America, a tiny handful of prosecutors account for a wildly disproportionate number of death sentences."
Just three prosecutors obtained a combined 131 death sentences: Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, N.C.; Robert Macy of Oklahoma County, Okla.; and Donald Myers of the 11th Judicial District of South Carolina. They were also noted in a June report by the Fair Punishment Project titled "America's Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty." Britt and Macy have retired and Myers plans to step down in 2017.
The trio also were heavily cited for misconduct -- 33 percent, 37 percent and 46 percent. The report also noted that once these prosecutors left office, the the death sentencing rates declined in their counties.
"The prosecutors who have obtained the most death sentences in these counties tend to exhibit an obsession with winning death sentences at almost any cost, even in cases with less culpable defendants," the report said. "Their willingness to cut corners, even in cases that literally involve life-and-death decisions, casts grave doubt on the legitimacy of capital punishment – and also tarnishes the entire justice system in America."
No. 1 on the list was Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. It had 28 death sentences between 2010 and 2015. Its death rate was 2.3 times higher than the rest of Arizona. Its percentage of misconduct in the cases was 21 percent.
Andrew Thomas, elected to serve as Maricopa's County attorney in 2004, pursued capital charges at nearly twice the rate of his predecessor, resulting in a backlog of cases. In 2012, a three-member panel of Arizona Supreme Court voted unanimously to disbar Thomas.
One of the prosecutors who served under Thomas was Juan Martinez, who was found to have committed misconduct in at least three capital murder cases by the Arizona Supreme Court. He prosecuted the conviction of Jody Arias, a case that drew national attention, for her murder of Travis Alexander in 2008. Arias was convicted of first-degree murder, but two juries failed to agree on the death penalty and instead the judge imposed a life sentence.
"Killing somebody is not love," Martinez said after the Arias trial."It's just a show that this person belongs to you and that if you can't have them, nobody else will."
In May, the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down the death sentence because the judge allowed Martinez to argue that the defendant, Shawn Patrick Lynch, could be potentially dangerous when he would be locked up forever.
In Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, there were 25 sentences -- about one-quarter of Florida's death sentences imposed. The rate is 40 percent higher than the rest of the state. The report found the percentage of misconduct at 16 percent.
Angela Corey is the state attorney in Florida's Fourth Judicial Circuit, which includes Duval County. Like Gonzalez in Arizona, Corey headed a high-profile case.
In 2012, Corey was appointed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott as special prosecutor to investigate the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. She charged him with second-degree murder, but he was acquitted of the charges.
One recent case is James Xavier Rhodes, a now-24-year-old man who is facing a death sentence for shooting a young woman at a MetroPCS store. Darlene Farrah, the victim's mother, has unsuccessfully asked Corey to grant her daughter's killer a plea deal for a life sentence.
"It's my statutory and constitutional duty to seek justice for this community and to give the victim's family justice," said told The New York Times. And she said the victims "do not control the seeking of the death penalty."
Corey says she can't be blamed for these disproportionate numbers. "We have so many sets of rules we are bound to follow," said told The Nation. "There are so many checks and balances."
Duval has had no capital cased exonerated.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that juvenile offenders and persons with intellectual disabilities should not be executed. However, the report noted there are "many defendants who also have a diminished culpability similar to these 'categorically exempted' defendants, but fall through the cracks of justice."
The report concluded: "Our findings, taken together, suggest that the small handful of counties that are still using the death penalty are plagued by persistent problems of overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias, resulting in the conviction of innocent people and the excessively harsh punishment of people with significant impairments that are on par with, or even worse than, the categorical exclusions that the Court has said should exempt individuals from execution due to lessened culpability."
The Fair Punishment Project is a joint initiative of Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute.