A new report from Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project found that the few counties that still use the death penalty are highly dysfunctional. One of the counties they identified is Duval County, Florida – a place where EJUSA organizer, Christine Henderson, lives and works. Christine and our local allies were outraged that their hometown’s record on the death penalty was so abysmal that it earned a national spotlight. We worked with local residents to respond to the report and call for an end to the death penalty.
The day after the report was released, EJUSA hosted a press conference of local religious leaders on the steps of the County Courthouse. They delivered a letter signed by over 50 of their local colleagues, asking the State Attorney’s office for the district to suspend its use of the death penalty.
“Duval County has gained the dubious distinction of sentencing individuals to death at one of the highest rates in the country,” the letter said. “That troubles us, especially given that our corrections system today can keep society safe without needing to resort to executions.”
Duval County has also received national attention for its treatment of Darlene Farah, whose daughter, Shelby, was murdered in 2013. Darlene has been asking prosecutors to take the death penalty off the table so that her family can continue the healing process away from the constant courtroom drama. The prosecutors have refused. The New York Times Magazine highlighted Darlene’s story in its hard-hitting coverage of the “Outlier Counties” report.
The following week, murder victims’ family members from around the country joined with Darlene, signing a letter organized by EJUSA and Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, once again calling on the State Attorney’s Office to halt use of the death penalty.
“Duval County has sought the death penalty with essentially no regard for the harm it causes murder victims’ families,” said Shari Silberstein, Executive Director of EJUSA. “In less than a year, Florida’s death penalty law has been struck down twice as unconstitutional, leaving it in legal limbo. It’s the surviving families who are left to suffer the inevitable uncertainty of a death sentence. It’s no surprise that Darlene Farah has fought so hard to avoid such a fate.”
The local action and national attention on Duval County are just the beginning. With the death penalty isolated to just a few outlier counties, the pressure on prosecutors to curb capital punishment will continue to grow.
The outlier county report was published by the Fair Punishment Project, a project of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. The Project identified the 16 counties – out of 3,143 in the country – that produced 5 or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015. In Part I of its report, “Too Broken to Fix: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties,” it looks at 8 of those 16 counties and shows that where the death penalty is most prolific, it is also most dysfunctional. The outlier counties are plagued by persistent problems of overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias. The impact of these systemic problems include the conviction of innocent people and the excessively harsh punishment of people with significant impairments.
Photo credit: Brandon Duncan, Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine