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Florida Counties Buck National Trend In Death Penalty Sentences

A quarter of counties that hand down the most death penalty sentences are in Florida.
Fair Punishment Project
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida is an outlier when it comes to sentencing people to death.

A new report looked at each of the 3,143 county or county equivalents in the country to compare sentencing practices. Only 16 counties sentenced five or more people to death between 2010 and 2015, and four of those counties are in Florida.

Last year, 49 people were sentenced to death nationwide, less than half than in 2009. But Miami-Dade, Duval, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have consistently bucked that national decline in death penalty sentences over the past several years.

“We found that you have a combination of a personality-driven death penalty: you have these few prosecutors that are seeking and obtaining death sentences,” said Robert Smith, director of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard law school, which published the study. “Across the 16 [outlier] counties, they tend to have this over-zealous pattern.”

He says this combined with inadequate defense lawyering creates a deadly combination.

He points to the recent  defeat of Fourth Judicial Circuit Court State Attorney Angela Corey—whose district includes Duval County (Jacksonville) —as evidence of pushback from an electorate that does not support unusually harsh punishment for criminals.

“The idea that these communities are somehow different and somehow want the death penalty more is flatly false and that the much better explanation is these are places where you have a personality-driven death penalty,” said Smith.

The report also found the vast majority of the people sentenced to death were individuals of color or with a history of mental illness.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Fair Punishment Project
The Florida Channel

Florida is one of two states that currently allows non-unanimous juries to hand down death verdicts, a component of the sentencing process that came under scrutiny when the Florida Legislature was forced to re-write the sentencing process after a U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down the previous method.

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Wilson Sayre was born and bred in Raleigh, N.C., home of the only real barbecue in the country (we're talking East here). She graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she studied Philosophy.