Our latest report examines the records of some of the nation’s “deadliest” prosecutors, as measured by the numbers of death sentences they secured. We also include brief summaries of additional prosecutors who may not have made the top five, but who, nonetheless, were responsible for unusually high numbers of capital prosecutions.  

What can such a snapshot tell us, not just about the prosecutors, but about the period in which they thrived?  If we’re willing to delve into the dark side of American justice, it turns out quite a bit.  

First, many of these prosecutors served between 1980 and 2000, the heyday of the “tough on crime” era. During these years, public support for capital punishment was at an all-time high.  These prosecutors clearly fed off of the country’s appetite for vengeance, often proudly flaunting their death penalty creds.  Kelly Siegler of Harris County, Texas, for instance, saw “little merit” in debating whether a teenager should receive the death penalty. Her justification for doing so was simple:  “Texas law says we can.”  Robert Macy of Oklahoma County kept a stack of baseball cards on his desk with a picture of him riding a horse on the front. On the back, he listed his statistics, including ‘Nation’s leading death penalty prosecutor…sent 42 murderers to death row.’The first person he put on death row was 16 years old, and suffered from multiple-personality disorder. Texas District Attorney Johnny Holmes admitted that he pursued death sentences “for retribution, plain and simple” and that at times he wished he “could have done it myself.”  Kenneth Peasley of Arizona proudly wore the label of “death-penalty machine” and bragged that he was personally responsible for one-tenth of Arizona’s death row.  Lynn Abraham of Philadelphia County, aka the “Queen of Death,” once announced, “When it comes to the death penalty, I am passionate. I truly believe it is manifestly correct.”

It is hardly surprising that these same prosecutors were cited time and again for misconduct, thus revealing that overzealousness and recklessness often go hand in hand. An Appeals Court overturned 41 cases handled by Abraham’s office due to prosecutorial misconduct. Kenneth Peasley was disbarred for allowing a detective to lie on the stand in two death penalty cases, (but only after twice being named Prosecutor of the Year.) Robert Macy was cited for “persistent misconduct” by a Court of Appeals. In most of his capital prosecutions, he relied upon the corroborating evidence of a lab chemist who was later found to have deliberately and repeatedly falsified DNA matches, withheld exculpatory evidence, and failed to test samples sent to her laboratory. Kelly Siegler was removed by one District Judge for contributing to 36 different instances of prosecutorial misconduct in one death penalty case.

And yet, most of these District Attorneys were elected over and over again, despite ample evidence that they were unencumbered by nuance or doubt, uncomfortable with qualities like restraint, compassion, or fairness, and willing to play dirty in order to win.  They were frequently enabled by judges who feared their power, by political figures terrified of being labeled “soft on crime,” and by a public all too willing to turn a blind eye to the racial bias, rhetorical excess, and blatant unfairness of so many of these prosecutions.

It would be comforting to believe that this particular American fever has broken and that, as a nation, we are undergoing a massive reform effort in regards to our criminal justice policy and practices.  In a limited way, this may be true.  All indications are that the death penalty is fading away in this country, rarely used, and will soon be abandoned legally and practically altogether.  As one prosecutor noted:  “The blood lust is gone.”

But we continue to read about too many instances when prosecutors push for excessively harsh punishments and when they engage in blatant misconduct.  We know that the profession as a whole remains slanted too much toward winning, and not enough toward justice.  Until we can change those institutional incentives, and somehow break our national obsession with punishment, we are likely to continue to put into office newer sleeker versions of the same old broken model.