In the 40 years since the Supreme Court ushered in the modern death penalty era, about 5 percent of the over 8,000 death sentences levied have been overseen by just five prosecutors.
In a report issued this past June by Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, capital punishment in the U.S. is characterized as a “personality-driven system” where “only a tiny handful of prosecutors are responsible for a vastly disproportionate number of death sentences.” A telling quote in the report’s introduction from former Caddo Parish, Louisiana, District Attorney Dale Cox helps illuminate why certain prosecutors so vigorously pursue death sentences: “I think we need to kill more people,” he declared, adding, “revenge…brings to us a visceral satisfaction.” Said another prosecutor of his former colleague, Donnie Myers of Lexington, Kentucky: “The only reason he gets up in the morning is to try death penalty cases. Virtually the only time you see him in the courtroom is when he’s trying to kill people.”
These same prosecutors, the report found, have had a disturbingly high number of findings of prosecutorial misconduct upheld by courts. Myers was found to have committed misconduct in 46 percent of his 39 capital cases, and Bob Macy of Oklahoma County was found to have committed misconduct in 18 of the 54 capital convictions he prosecuted. For Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina, it was 14 of 38 capital cases.
Given their zeal to put people to death at any cost, it should come as little surprise that four of the five prosecutors presided over cases where the condemned defendant was eventually exonerated.