Harvard Report: Duval County Among US Death Penalty 'Outliers'

Aug 23, 2016

Credit ZaldyImg via Flickr

Updated at 7:45 p.m. on Aug. 23

Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit, which includes Duval County, is among a handful nationwide that sentence the majority of criminals to die. That’s according to a report out Tuesday titled “Too Broken to Fix” from Harvard University researchers.


The report comes from The Fair Punishment Project, a joint initiative of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute. Read the whole report here

Duval County is named as one of 16 so-called “outliers” among U.S. counties where the majority of death sentences are handed out, including to people with mental illness or developmental disabilities and to those under age 25. The report blames “overzealous prosecutors” and ineffective defense lawyers for an unequal application of the death penalty across the areas where capital punishment is still used.

Researchers specifically single out District 4 State Attorney Angela Corey and prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda.

In a phone interview, Fair Punishment Project Director Rob Smith said, “It’s up to a prosecutor to use discretion to move from all of the cases where the statute applies to a narrow set of cases that represent the worst of the worst people, and Angela Corey’s office just doesn’t do a good job of that.”

The report says 60 percent of Duval County defendants sentenced to death since 2006 had some sort of “mitigating” factor that should have precluded their sentence, whether it was youth or mental impairment of some sort.

MORE | Read the full report below.

It goes on to say the rate of death sentences per 100 homicides in Duval and three other populous Florida counties is more than 40 percent higher than in the rest of the state.

In a written statement addressing "several out-of-state" recent articles on the county's death penalty, Corey said, "The State Attorney’s Office of the Fourth Judicial Circuit remains devoted to faithfully serving the citizens of Northeast Florida with an unwavering commitment to justice, fairness and public safety, and we will never apologize for being tough on crime, for seeking the death penalty in appropriate cases, and fighting for victims and their families."

She also said, "It is a prosecutor's job to seek the death penalty," while it's up to juries to make a recommendation and judges to impose the sentence. She also said the criticism fails to account for the victims of crimes, adding, "It should be noted that many of our victims in Duval death penalty cases are black and deserve ultimate justice."  

Also, in response to a similar study in 2013, District 4 prosecutors told Florida Public Radio they defend the sentences because they follow state sentencing guidelines for all cases.

And new sentences could be coming for the hundreds of death row inmates in Florida, depending on how the state Supreme Court rules. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case called Hurst v. Florida spurred the state Legislature to change the requirement to impose a death sentence this year from a simple majority of jurors to 10 out of 12 jurors. The Florida Supreme Court is deciding whether that should apply retroactively to all death row inmates. 

Editor's note: This story was updated to include the response from Corey. 

Listen to this story on Redux:

Contact Jessica Palombo at 904-358-6315, jpalombo@wjct.org or on Twitter at @JessicaPubRadio.