Twenty states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment. Four more have imposed a moratorium on executions. Of the 26 remaining states, only 14 handed down any death sentences last year, for a total of 50 across the country — less than half the number six years before. California, which issued more than one-quarter of last year’s death sentences, hasn’t actually executed anyone since 2006. A new geography of capital punishment is taking shape, with just 2 percent of the nation’s counties now accounting for a majority of the people sitting on death row.An even smaller fraction of these counties still imposes death sentences regularly. In June 2015, in the Supreme Court case Glossip v. Gross, which involved lethal injection, Justice Stephen Breyer noted in a dissent that only 15 counties — out of more than 3,000 across the United States — had imposed five or more new death sentences since 2010. The number rises to 16 counties if Breyer’s count is extended through the end of 2015. Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, a city of nearly 900,000 where Shelby Farah was killed, is among the 16.What separates the 16 counties where the death penalty regularly endures from the rest of the country, where it is fading away? The 16 counties span seven states in the South and the West. They include major cities, like Los Angeles, Houston, Las Vegas and Phoenix; suburban areas like Orange County, Calif., and San Bernardino, Calif.; and semirural pockets like Mobile County, Ala., and Caddo Parish, La. Some are dominated by Democratic voters, some are dominated by Republicans and a few are evenly split. Many of the counties have high numbers of murders, but so do plenty of other places that don’t use the death penalty.
Angela Corey, the state attorney in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit, which includes Duval County, gave no indication of offering a plea deal. Corey prosecuted dozens of murder cases herself over 36 years as a trial lawyer. (In 2012, Gov. Rick Scott tapped her to oversee the prosecution of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was acquitted; she was criticized for overcharging him.) Corey, 61, has made her reputation, in part, by winning verdicts that carry the death penalty. She has one of the highest rates of death sentences in the country, with 24 (19 in Duval) in the eight years since she was elected.In 2008, the same year Angela Corey first ran for office, a 35-year-old Republican who had never tried a homicide case, Matt Shirk, announced his candidacy for public defender. Weak defense lawyering plays a well-known role in determining who gets the death penalty. But until then, the public defender’s office in Duval County had a strong reputation, with a respected unit for death-penalty cases and other homicides.Shirk campaigned eight years ago on a promise to slash the budget. He also stressed his support from Angela Corey, and said he worked under her “direct tutelage” during a law-school internship. Corey referred to him as her “darling.” (In 2012 she helped host a fund-raiser for him; she later apologized for it.) After Shirk won the race, he fired 10 senior lawyers. “Angela Corey supported Matt Shirk and got exactly what she wanted,” says Finnell, who lost her job. “She saw the demise of the public defender’s office as it was. It made her life a whole lot easier.”As his second-in-command, Shirk quickly installed Refik Eler, a defense lawyer with a private practice built on taking court appointments to represent poor defendants charged with felonies. Eler has 15 death sentences on his record, one of the highest totals in Florida, according to the Fair Punishment Project.
Advocates see the shrinking geography of capital punishment as the most promising path to ending executions in the country for good. It’s a self-reinforcing strategy: Once a county loses the habit of meting out death sentences, it’s probably less likely to do so in the future, Garrett’s research suggests. And the more unusual the death penalty becomes, the more emboldened the Supreme Court could be to decide that it is also cruel, as justices including Kennedy and Breyer have come to understand that word. To receive a death sentence remains as random as being “struck by lightning,” Justice Breyer wrote last year, echoing Justice Potter Stewart’s words from half a century ago. “How then,” Breyer asked, “can we reconcile the death penalty with the demands of a Constitution that first and foremost insists upon a rule of law?”
UPDATE: Angela Corey, the prosecutor referenced above, was defeated today 8/31/16 in her primary bid for re-election.
Gosh, Florida...way to go and be all NOT Florida for once.