Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are "outliers" in their use of the death penalty, a result of overzealous prosecutors, a lack of regard for defendants with mental and intellectual problems, and racial disparities, a Harvard University study says.
A report by the school's Fair Punishment Project places the two counties among 16 in the nation where five or more defendants received death sentences between 2010 and 2015. Two other Florida counties — Duval and Miami-Dade — also made the list.
"This is what capital punishment in America looks like today," the report states. "While the vast majority of counties have abandoned the practice altogether, what remains is the culmination of one systemic deficiency layered atop another."
Representatives for Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober and Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe declined to comment on the report because they had not yet seen it. Ober is in the middle of a heated re-election bid.
Researchers examining six Hillsborough death cases on appeal found three of the condemned men had intellectual disabilities, severe mental illness or brain damage. In four of those cases, jurors had not been unanimous about a death sentence. And three of the five more recent death sentences (from the 2010-2015 cases) were imposed on black or Hispanic defendants.
In Pinellas, four out of six appellate defendants had intellectual disabilities, severe mental illness or brain damage; three of five new death sentences were for black defendants; and recent death sentences all came from non-unanimous juries, according to the report.
Also common to death cases in both counties was a lack of adequate defense representation, the report says, with presentations of mitigating evidence typically lasting less than one day.
The report accuses Ober of being quick to pursue the death penalty even when there are significant mitigating factors, such as an intellectual disability. It notes a comment published last year by Public Defender Julianne Holt that Hillsborough prosecutors seek the death penalty in one out of every five first-degree murder cases.
Researchers singled out some of Ober's top prosecutors, noting one sought death sentences in a handful of cases in which a judge or a jury disagreed or the sentence was overturned on appeal. Among those cases was that of Humberto Delgado, convicted in the 2009 shooting death of Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts. The state Supreme Court threw out Delgado's death sentence because of severe mental illness.
The report also noted three cases, under previous state attorneys, in which men sentenced to death in Hillsborough were later exonerated.
In Pinellas County, the report references the case of Patrick Evans, whose death sentence was overturned by the state Supreme Court because of inappropriate comments made by an assistant state attorney during trial.
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Researchers pointed out four Pinellas cases in which defendants had mental health issues or intellectual disabilities. Among them was the case of Genghis Kocaker, who killed a Clearwater cab driver in 2004. An expert at Kocaker's trial testified that he suffered from mental illness and had an IQ of 70 and organic brain damage.
The Fair Punishment Project is part of Harvard Law School's Criminal Justice Institute and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice. Its stated purpose is to use legal research and education to promote fairness and accountability in the criminal justice system.
The project purports to take no official stance on the death penalty. However, its director, Robert Smith, has also worked on the Eighth Amendment Project, which has been described as an effort to abolish the death penalty. He has written academic papers in which he expresses the view that the death penalty is unconstitutional.
While Smith acknowledged his personal opposition to the death penalty, he noted that the Fair Punishment Project is a collaboration among dozens of researchers who have diverse views on capital punishment.
"No project that's affiliated with the law school is allowed to have any particular view on the death penalty," Smith said. "If the goal of the Fair Punishment Project was to get rid of the death penalty, I think the report would look a lot different than it does."
Contact Dan Sullivan at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.