California’s Killing Counties

Five counties in southern California have been handing down so many death sentences one death penalty expert has dubbed them the “new Death Belt.”

In 2015, 49 death sentences were imposed in the U.S., according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Fourteen of those were in California, more than any other state, and of those 14, Riverside County accounted for eight.

Welcome to southern California, the new “Death Belt” of the United States.

That’s what law professor Robert J. Smith calls Riverside, Orange, Los Angeles, Kern, and San Bernardino counties. Harvard University calls them “outlier counties” in its ongoing Fair Punishment Project. These five are among the top 16 counties in the country that produced the highest number of death sentences (five or more) between 2010 and 2015.

“These ‘outlier counties’ are plagued by persistent problems of overzealous prosecutors,
ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias,” the Fair Punishment Project says, in a second report released Wednesday. Even more damagingly, the report says that these problems “included the conviction of innocent people, and the excessively harsh punishment of people with significant impairments. Many of the defendants appear to have one or more impairments that are on par with, or worse than, those that the U.S. Supreme Court has said should categorically exempt individuals from execution due to lessened culpability.”

The report reviewed approximately 400 direct appeals handed down between 2006 and 2015 in the 16 counties and found that: “56 percent of cases involved defendants with significant mental impairments or other forms of mitigation, such as the defendant’s young age; and approximately one out of every six cases involved a defendant who was under the age of 21 at the time of the offense.”

In Part 1 of its report, released in June, one of the counties the Fair Punishment Project focused on was Riverside County, noting that it is “the nation’s leading producer of death sentences.” (Smith refers to it as the “buckle in the new Death Belt.”) The report said that in 2015, Riverside “sent more people to death row than every other state in the country except Florida and California itself,” and pointed out that its rate of death sentencing per 100 homicides was almost nine times the rate for the rest of the state.

In this new report, Orange, Kern and San Bernardino counties are three of the counties the project analyzes. Among its findings are that in San Bernardino and Kern counties, 50 percent of cases “involved a defendant who had an intellectual disability, brain damage, or severe mental illness.” And in Orange County, “60 percent of the victims were white in the cases involving a black defendant, even though research has shown that the vast majority of homicides are committed intra-race.”

DPIC points out that California has joined Florida and Alabama in being an outlier in its death sentencing. “The three accounted for more than half of all new death sentences in the country,” DPIC said, with 13 of California’s 14 death sentences concentrated in the Death Belt in 2015.

California is often referred to as a bellwether state, but on the death penalty it is an outlier. Proposition 62, on the California ballot next month, would repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. If it passes, it could restore the state’s prominence and its reputation. The time is now

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