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Just five prosecutors are responsible for 440 Americans—that’s one in seven—on death row

Reuters/Stephen Lam
Disproportionate impact.
By Aamna Mohdin
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The US is a global leader in capital punishment. In the last 40 years, the American justice system has handed down 8,038 death sentences.

While there are 2,400 head prosecutors and thousands of line prosecutors in America, researchers pin a “vastly disproportionate” number of death sentences on just a handful of them in a recent report (pdf). (The subtitle: “How overzealous personalities drive the death penalty.”)

Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project profiled five prosecutors:

  • Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina
  • Donnie Myers of Lexington, South Carolina
  • Bob Macy of Oklahoma County
  • Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia County
  • Johnny Holmes of Harris County, Texas

Collectively, they are responsible for no fewer than 440 prisoners on death row, which is equivalent to one out in every seven.

Britt, for example, obtained 38 death sentences during his career—the Guinness Book of World Records named him “the deadliest prosecutor in America.” The report notes that there were no death sentences in the 27 years before Britt’s arrival in Robeson County; but once he took over the district attorney’s office, a person was 100 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a randomly selected person in the United States.

Britt once said: “Within the breast of each of us burns a flame that constantly whispers in our ear ‘preserve life at any cost’. It is the prosecutor’s job to extinguish that flame.”

The only woman in the report’s top five is Abraham, once dubbed “the queen of death.” In her 19 years in office, Abraham, with the support of other lawyers, obtained 108 death sentences. After overseeing her first execution, Abraham reportedly described it as “a non-event.”

The Harvard researchers slammed these five prosecutors for convictions “without regard for fairness and accuracy” and said it represents the worst of the “personality-driven” culture of death-penalty sentencing, which often appears to have less to do with the circumstances of the crime and more to do with the predilections of the prosecutors.

While four out of the five prosecutors have on the list have since retired, the report also highlights current prosecutors tipped to be America’s “next generation of deadly prosecutors,” if they continue to pursue death sentences at their current rate.

They are Bernie de la Rionda, who has obtained 22 death sentences; Jeanette Gallagher, who has obtained nine; and Paul Ebert, who has obtained at least 14 death sentences.

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