Juries in Harris County, which includes the city of Houston, have imposed the death penalty more than any other county in the US since its reinstatement in 1976, Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A Harvard Law School study has found that racial bias, overly aggressive prosecutions and inadequate representation for poor defendants affect death penalty cases in Harris County, Texas. Juries in the county, which includes Houston, have imposed the death penalty more than any other county in the US since its reinstatement in 1976.
The Fair Punishment Project also notes that the number of death sentences handed down in Harris County has fallen to 10 since 2010, from 53 between 1998 and 2003.
Harris County was named one of 16 “outlier” counties in the US, where five or more death sentences were assessed in between 2010 and 2015. In the eight counties examined by the study, 41% of the death sentences were given to black defendants and 69% to minorities overall. In Harris County, all defendants condemned since 2004 were from racial minority groups.
“When you look at what the death penalty actually looks like on the ground in Harris County, you see things that should disturb you,” Rob Smith, one of the researchers on the project, told the Houston Chronicle.
“There’s a pattern of over-zealous prosecution that dates back for decades but is still present in the time period for the study, and is matched by under-zealous [defense] representation in cases.”
Harris County district attorney Devon Anderson said her office was judicious in its use of the death penalty.
“When we seek death, it’s because we have a solid guilt/innocence case and a very strong punishment case,” she said. “The death penalty is only appropriate for the worst of the worst.”
Anderson also said she did not know the race of a defendant or victim whenever she and four top staff members met to discuss whether to seek the death penalty.
“I think it’s very important that it be ‘blind’ in that regard,” she said.
Juries across the country are proving to be increasingly reluctant to sentence defendants to death, the Harvard report said, choosing instead the option of life imprisonment without parole.
The last Harris County trial in which prosecutors sought the death penalty ended in November: 28-year-old Johnathan Sanchez was given life without parole. The last Harris County jury to assess a death sentence did so in 2014, when Harlem Lewis was sent to death row for the killings of Bellaire police officer Jimmie Norman and “good samaritan” Terry Taylor.
The Harris County district attorney’s office is currently seeking the death penalty in two cases. Ronald Haskell, who is white, is accused of killing two adults and four children from his ex-wife’s family in spring 2014. David Ray Conley, who is black, is accused of killing last year his ex-girlfriend, her husband and six children, including his son.