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Prosecutor misconduct significant in Kentucky death penalty reversals

The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) announced there is a new study by Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project which reports that a handful of prosecutors are responsible for 15% of the death sentences imposed on defendants nationwide. The report also reveals that 20% of the more than 150 innocent defendants released because of wrongful convictions were prosecuted by these same overzealous individuals. According to DPIC:

The report says that the “over-aggressive and reckless” fervor with which the featured prosecutors pursue death sentences is “evidence that the application of the death penalty is—and always has been—less about the circumstances of the offense or the characteristics of the person who committed the crime, and more a function of the personality and predilections of the local prosecutors entrusted with the power to seek the ultimate punishment.” It concludes, “[t]his overzealous, personality-driven, win-at-all-costs pursuit of capital punishment seriously undermines the legitimacy of the death penalty today.”

Problems with the prosecution of death penalty cases in Kentucky were clearly outlined on pages xix – xxi of the summary of the American Bar Association Kentucky Assessment Report. This two-year study by some of Kentucky’s most distinguished legal scholars, practitioners and judges highlighted problems similar to what the Fair Punishment Project is now reporting. In its summary readers can find this on page xxi:

There is also geographic disparity with respect to capital charging practices and conviction rates in Kentucky. Since 2003, fifty-three percent of Fayette County murder cases have gone to trial compared to twenty-five percent in Jefferson County.

The Harvard report speaks a great deal about prosecutorial misconduct. Here is what Kentucky legal scholars reported after their two-year study of how Kentucky’s system works. Again, from page xxi:

Finally, the high percentage of reversals and citations of prosecutorial misconduct or error in death penalty cases acutely demonstrates the need for appropriate discipline to deter and prevent reoccurrence of such conduct, particularly when a life is at stake. Of the seventy-eight persons sentenced to death in the Commonwealth since the reinstatement of the death penalty, at least fifty defendants’ death sentences have been overturned by Kentucky state or federal courts. Of these fifty reversals, fifteen have been based, in whole or in part, on prosecutorial misconduct or error.

The newly appointed Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council, if it is seriously interested in preserving the integrity and credibility of Kentucky’s justice system, needs to review the ABA’s Kentucky Assessment Report on the use of the death penalty and consider recommending its abolition.

Graphic: Courtesy of Death Penalty Information Center

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