Where the Death Penalty Still Lives

Death Penalty Still Lives

Shelby Farah, in photos held by her mother. Shelby was 20 when James Rhodes, 21, killed her during a robbery. Credit Jessica Dimmock/VII, for The New York Times

On a Saturday evening in July 2013, just before 6:30, James Rhodes was recorded on a surveillance camera walking into a Metro PCS cellphone store in Jacksonville, Fla. He was wearing a black do-rag and a blue bandanna, which he pulled over his nose and mouth. Shelby Farah, the store manager, stood behind the counter. Rhodes pointed a gun at her and demanded the money in the cash register. Shelby gave it to him. Then Rhodes shot her in the head. She was 20 years old. He was 21.

Shelby, the oldest of three siblings in a family of Palestinian descent, was working and planning to start college in the fall. Her mother, Darlene Farah, had been nervous when her daughter started as a manager of the Metro PCS branch, which was in a high-crime part of town, miles from their home near the beach. But Shelby told her mother she felt comfortable in the neighborhood; she’d gone to high school nearby, attending a magnet program on criminal justice. She was nicknamed “peacemaker” in middle school because she couldn’t stand to see kids argue. An accomplished cheerleader, she volunteered for two seasons as a coach for a group of girls instead of pursuing a chance to make the cheerleading squad for the Jaguars football team.

Rhodes, who is black, was placed in foster care at age 5 and went to live at a state boys’ home at 6. He reads at a third-grade level and struggles with simple math. At 17, Rhodes moved to an older cousin’s house with his younger half sister. After a couple of weeks, their cousin disappeared, leaving them without money for food or rent. The landlord evicted them. Within 14 months, Rhodes was arrested for petty theft at Sears, Walmart and Kmart and for jumping and robbing a man with four other boys. At 19, he was jailed for brandishing a gun at two women. Rhodes says he was high when he killed Farah. He told his lawyer, the assistant public defender Debra Billard, that he was sorry for what he had done. In early 2014, Billard told prosecutors that Rhodes would plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. Instead, the state was determined to seek the death penalty.

In most of the country, it would be very unlikely for prosecutors to pursue death for a defendant like James Rhodes. Execution is supposed to be a punishment for the“worst of the worst,” Justice David Souter wrote a decade ago. With violent crime falling, and bipartisan concerns about the rising costs of capital murder trials increasing —some states spend an average of $1 million more on litigation for a defendant sentenced to death than on one sentenced to life in prison — the death penalty is on the decline in the United States.

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.

In his dissent in Glossip, Breyer staked out new territory in the debate over whether the death penalty has proved too unfair, and racially discriminatory, to continue. His opinion sent a wave of excitement through a community of scholars and advocates around the country who have been fighting for years, and in some instances decades, to end executions. A deep examination of the counties where the death penalty is concentrated, several of them argue, reveals that in many, the justice systems are riddled with flaws, influencing the fates of countless defendants, as well as James Rhodes.

The Supreme Court has been trying for more than 40 years to write rules that can fairly determine which murderers live and which die. In 1972, the court came close to abolishing the death penalty — because, as five justices argued for different reasons in five separate opinions, it was being imposed arbitrarily, and thus qualified as the “cruel and unusual punishment” that the Eighth Amendment prohibits. Justice Potter Stewart likened receiving the death penalty to “being struck by lightning” for “a capriciously selected random handful.” Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that the “impotence” of the poor and of minorities “leaves them victims of a sanction that the wealthier, better-represented, just-as-guilty person can escape.”

And yet the court allowed states to try to correct the problem by passing new laws that limited the death penalty to certain types of crimes the state considered most blameworthy. “The idea was to make sentencing decisions turn on the severity of a defendant’s offense instead of random factors, such as where the crime occurred, or insidious factors, such as race,” says Evan Mandery, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of “A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America.”Strong public sentiment in favor of maintaining capital punishment propelled 35 states to pass revised death-penalty laws. The court allowed the new statutes to stand if they enumerated “aggravating factors” that weighed in favor of death, and allowed the defense to present mitigating evidence that weighed against it.

Back then, Breyer explained in his Glossip dissent (in which he was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), the court believed “that the constitutional infirmities in the death penalty could be healed.” But he argued that the court now knows otherwise: “Almost 40 years of studies, surveys and experience strongly indicate, however, that this effort has failed.”

Breyer wrote that there is “convincing evidence” that innocent people have been executed in three states, and he described near-misses, with more than 100 exonerations on death row. He also laid out the proof that race affects who is selected for execution. The seminal study in the field,conducted in Georgia in the 1970s, found after controlling for many other factors that the death penalty was far more likely if a victim was white, especially if a defendant was black. Research since then has confirmed the disparity in states across the country. “Racism is the historical force that has most deeply marked the American death pen­alty,” says Carol Steiker, a Harvard law professor and an author of the forthcoming book “Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment From Colonial Days to the Present.”

But in 1987, in a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge that sought to abolish the death penalty based on the evidence of racial discrimination in the Georgia study. Justice Lewis Powell, who cast the fifth vote, said four years later that he regretted it. By then, however, he had left the court.

Death Penalty Still Lives

Darlene Farah, mother of Shelby Farah, at Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. Credit Jessica Dimmock/VII, for The New York Times

In light of this history, Breyer emphasized a geography-based argument in his dissent last year. “Perhaps as a result” of the death penalty’s demonstrated flaws, he began, “most places within the United States have abandoned its use.” Along with pointing out the concentration of death sentences in a small number of counties, Breyer mentioned that only one-third of the American population lived in a state that had conducted an execution in the previous three years. Last year’s total number of executions — 28 — is less than half the annual total of a decade earlier.

Breyer was building on an analytic approach the court had used before. At least three times in the last decade and a half, a majority of justices has found a punishment to be cruel and unusual, and therefore unconstitutional, because it was rarely used in “actual sentencing practices,” as the court put it. The justices ended the execution of intellectually disabled people in 2002 after observing that such executions had become “uncommon” even though they remained legal in many states. Three years later, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s crucial swing voter, wrote a majority opinionfdeclaring that a “national consensus” had emerged against the death penalty for juvenile offenders. Kennedy cited the “infrequency of its use even where it remains on the books.” He took the same approach in 2010 to ban life without parole for juveniles convicted of a crime other than murder.

It would be a far more sweeping change for the Supreme Court to declare a national consensus for ending the death penalty. Today polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans continue to favor capital punishment, thoughmore than half say they would prefer to impose life without parole if given the option.

Death Penalty Still LivesNonetheless, Breyer was laying the groundwork for abolition, by making an argument, anchored in the Constitution’s “cruel and unusual” language, that the retreat of the death penalty county by county could one day persuade the court to end it everywhere. And Kennedy has expressed the view that the rare use of a punishment should be seen as evidence that the penalty is unconstitutional because it’s not serving a meaningful purpose.

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.

Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, along with a research team at Harvard Law School called the Fair Punishment Project, has been trying to identify the factors that explain why certain counties still regularly impose capital punishment. They have been delving into the death-penalty records of the 16 counties and comparing them with those of other jurisdictions and havefound three key features that often characterize the 16. “The people who get the death penalty tend to live in places with overaggressive prosecutors and defense lawyers who aren’t up to the task of defending against them — that’s a double whammy,” says Robert J. Smith, who directs the project. “Then in some places there’s a third element: a cultural legacy of racial bias and exclusion. It’s just not true that we execute the people who are the most culpable.”

In the weeks after her daughter died, Darlene Farah, distraught, fantasized about smuggling a gun into court to kill James Rhodes. At the same time, she wanted to learn everything she could about the murder. She talked to people who knew Rhodes, and she hired a former F.B.I. agent to help her investigate his background. They found a trail of abuse and neglect.

 

Rhodes’s mother abandoned him when he was 8 months old. His father was a drug addict who went in and out of prison, leaving Rhodes with his elderly grandmother. A bus driver who picked him up from her house for day care reported that he was often dirty and crying from hunger. After Rhodes went to live in the boys’ home at 6, the state periodi­cally tried to reunite him with his father. Rhodes would dress up and wait, his caseworker reported, but often his father didn’t come; once, after his father did visit with his girlfriend and a baby, Rhodes was so upset that he curled up in a fetal position, sucking his thumb to comfort himself. When he was 9, an older boy at the home sexually assaulted him.

The more Farah learned, the more complicated her feelings became. Then, after a pretrial hearing in February 2014, Farah was approached by Debra Billard, Rhodes’s lawyer, in the company of a prosecutor, to discuss the possibility of a guilty plea and a life sentence. Farah, who was raising her children on her own, was inclined to avoid a trial. Her younger children, Caleb, then 17, and Nycole, then 15, were struggling with their grief and having difficulty concentrating in school. They wanted the case to end. “We all knew Shelby wouldn’t have wanted him to die,” Farah told me when I visited her this spring. Still, she hesitated. What if Caleb and Nycole blamed her for not pressing to punish Rhodes as much as possible? What if people judged her?

Farah took her children to pray with the Rev. Reginald Gundy, the senior pastor at Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church. She had known him since her younger children were in middle school, when they went to his church with neighbors. They prayed together and decided they wanted Rhodes to plead guilty and live with what he had done to Shelby and to them. Farah asked Pastor Gundy to go with her to tell the prosecutor. “The state raised him,” she often says. “How can they say now that they want to kill him?”

But 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.

Even compared with the three other Florida counties on the list of 16, Duval County is an outlier. The state attorney in one of the three, Miami-Dade County, which has twice the population of Corey’s jurisdiction and twice the annual number of murders, has five death sentences over the same period. Death-penalty opponents question whether Corey gives too little weight to the backgrounds of defendants. “Other prosecutors in Florida care about mitigating evidence like chronic and serious child abuse,” says Stephen K. Harper, the executive director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation. “Angela Corey does not.”

As most prosecutors cut back on the death penalty, they typically reserve the punishment for murders with heinous circumstances or defendants with clearly violent histories. But Florida’s statute, which includes 16 “aggravating” factors, gives them broad discretion to seek the death penalty. In Rhodes’s case, in addition to citing the robbery at the time of the murder, Corey said Rhodes had previously committed a crime involving violence when he brandished the gun. Though Rhodes didn’t hurt anyone at the time, he was accused of pointing the weapon toward two women while standing on the street in front of their house. One of them, he said, had been arguing in text messages with a girl he liked. Rhodes pleaded guilty and received a three-year prison sentence. “I don’t think this would be a death case in Gainesville, and it would surprise me if it was a death case elsewhere in the state,” says Alan Chipperfield, the chief assistant public defender in Gainesville and former head of the homicide unit for the public defender’s office in Jacksonville.

With Corey refusing to relent, Farah began speaking to the press about her opposition to the death sentence in her daughter’s case. Last summer, Billard, Rhodes’s lawyer, met with Corey and Bernie de la Rionda, the prosecutor handling Rhodes’s case, to argue for her client’s life. De la Rionda has obtained more than 25 death sentences over his career, making him one of the “deadliest” trial lawyers in the country, according to the Fair Punishment Project. “I will not apologize for seeking the death penalty in appropriate cases,” de la Rionda told me.

Billard presented Rhodes’s history of abuse and neglect and pointed out that while in jail for Farah’s murder, Rhodes received a 67 on an I.Q. test, a score that makes him potentially ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability. Though prosecutors might persuade the jury to overlook the low score, because Rhodes tested in the 70s during his childhood, they could lose on appeal over this issue. Corey wouldn’t budge, however, and in July 2015 the trial judge ruled that the death-penalty case could proceed despite Rhodes’s low I.Q. score.

This February, over Farah’s objections, de la Rionda showed her son, Caleb, now 19, the video of his sister’s murder. That night, Caleb stopped staying at his mother’s house. He told the press he had changed his mind: He wanted the state to execute his sister’s killer. At a hearing in May, Caleb sat apart from his mother, who held a framed picture of Shelby on her lap. When she caught her son’s eye, he barely acknowledged her. After the hearing, de la Rionda hugged Caleb. “It feels like they’re trying to punish me,” Darlene said.

I spoke to Corey in July and asked why she insisted on the death penalty in Rhodes’s case. “It’s my statutory and constitutional duty to seek justice for this community and to give the victim’s family justice,” she said. When I asked about Darlene Farah’s wish for justice through a life sentence, Corey told me that the families of victims “do not control the seeking of the death penalty.”

The Metro PCS store where Shelby Farah was killed sits on an industrial strip of Main Street in north Jacksonville near an auto-parts store and a King Crab House. To the west are smaller streets pockmarked by abandoned houses, where drug dealers sometimes stash supplies. This is one of the parts of the city that is mostly black, a residential pattern that dates to the 1930s, when “colored districts” were adjacent to two incinerators, according to a city plan. Over the years, attempts at integration were met with violence. On a Saturday in August 1960, a white mob of 200 chased black demonstrators who had been sitting at whites-only lunch counters, beating them with bats and ax handles. “There was no police protection during two weeks of sit-ins,” says Rodney L. Hurst Sr., an N.A.A.C.P. leader who helped organize the protest and has written two books about the city’s history.

Over the following decades, African-Americans were shut out of city contracts and often relegated to menial or dangerous jobs. In a 1989 report commissioned by the city, black businesspeople said they commonly had to leave Jacksonville to make a living. That year, two residents died in the northwest quadrant because of flooding, and three African-American members of the City Council pleaded unsuccessfully for money for sewers and drainage. When they walked out of a council meeting in protest, sheriff’s deputies marched them back inside, with one of them in handcuffs. Alvin Brown became the first African-American to be elected mayor in 2011. Pastor Gundy campaigned for him, as did Darlene and Shelby Farah. During his single term, students and activists waged a battle to remove the name of Nathan B. Forrest, a Confederate lieutenant general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, from a mostly black high school. They finally succeeded in 2014. “Cities like Atlanta, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale confronted their racial problems after the 1960s,” Hurst says. “Jacksonville did not. It put its head in the sand.”

Discrimination against black residents is linked to the history of minimizing their vote in northeast Florida. In 1968, with the black population of Jacksonville rising above 40 percent, the city and county governments consolidated, bringing in white voters from the suburbs. In 1972, seven years after the Voting Rights Act increased black participation in Florida elections, the Legislature redrew the lines for electing judges and state attorneys as well as public defenders; Florida is one of a few states in which they are elected. Two smaller counties, both mostly white, were included with Duval in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit. “The circuit was created by the State Legislature to keep whites in control,” says Gundy.

A white circuit judge who sentenced five people to death in the 1970s admonished a public defender to call his black clients by their first names, like children. In 1992, the chief judge, also white, gave a newspaper interview expressing misgivings about school desegregation and interracial marriage. “We’ve been too good to them,” he said of black residents. Last month, a white circuit judge in Duval wasreassigned after it was reported that he told staff members, among other things, that black people should “go back to Africa.” He denies the accusations, which are under investigation.

Corey took office in 2009 with a law-and-order message and strong ties to the police. She increased the rate of convictions, but some of her decisions regarding charges alien­ated leaders of the private bar. “This city has been embarrassed across the country by Angela Corey,” Hank Coxe, a former president of the Florida Bar, told me. He talked about two cases that have drawn attention. In 2010,Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old black woman in Jacksonville who had been abused on multiple occasions by her husband, fired a warning shot at the wall near him while his two children were in the room. Alexander, who had no criminal history, said she acted out of fear that her husband would hurt her. Corey said she acted in anger and charged Alexander with three counts of aggravated assault with a firearm, each carrying a 20-year mandatory-minimum sentence. After Alexander was convicted, Jesse Jackson traveled to Jacksonville to ask Corey to intervene. The state attorney said there was nothing she could do, and Alexander spent nearly three years in prison before an appeals court threw out the verdict against her.

In 2011, Coxe joined other private lawyers to represent Cristian Fernandez, a 12-year-old whom Corey charged, as an adult, with first-degree murder. Cristian was left at home alone with his 2-year-old half brother, David. At some point, prosecutors claim, Cristian hurt David; the 2-year-old lost consciousness, and Cristian called his mother. It took eight hours for her to take David to the hospital, where he died. Cristian had a history of being abused: When he was a toddler and his mother was 14, they were both placed in foster care after they were found in a filthy trailer without electricity. His mother later married a man who beat him. When his school reported the abuse and the police tried to arrest Cristian’s stepfather, the man shot himself in the head.

The murder charge Corey brought against Cristian carried a mandatory sentence of life in jail. Corey also ordered the boy to adult prison, where he spent his first month in solitary confinement. In 2013, Cristian’s lawyers negotiated a plea bargain to the juvenile version of manslaughter, with a seven-year sentence in a juvenile facility. Corey embraced the outcome and said her aim had always been a balance between punishment and rehabilitation for Cristian. But in a French documentary about the case, Corey said, “Everyone’s saying, Oh, but, but they’re just a child.” She then continued, “Well, there’s a line in the sand you have to draw, and you have to say at some point, This person has already had a chance at rehabilitation, or the crime is so serious and done in such a manner as rehabilitation may not be possible.”

Human rights groups say that Corey’s policies have disproportionately affected black defendants. She has continued to charge juveniles as adults, moving more black teenagers than white ones into the adult system, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. In a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, Judge Henry Davis, at the time the only black judge on the local circuit court, called prosecutors’ decisions about which teenagers to charge as adults “basically arbitrary.” When black children commit minor infractions and are eligible for civil citations, an alternative to arrest, they are less likely to receive them than eligible white children. Duval County’s population is 30 percent African-American. During Angela Corey’s tenure, 80 percent of the defendants sentenced to death were black, compared with 73 percent of those arrested for murder. In July, when asked at a forum hosted by black lawyers in Jacksonville if the local justice system was fair to black residents, Corey said, “There is no disparity on the basis of race.”

Black jurors are relatively absent from death-penalty trials, which can affect their outcomes. “Research shows the mere presence of blacks on capital juries — on the rare occasions they are seated — can mean the difference between life and death,” Melynda J. Price, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, wrote in a 2009 law review article. But to be seated on a death-penalty case, a prospective juror must say he or she could vote for execution without substantial moral or religious qualms, in keeping with the test set by the Supreme Court. Since African-Americans oppose capital punishment at a higher rate than whites, fewer of them can serve.

Prosecutors also can take steps to keep them off juries. In Caddo Parish, La., which is among the 16 counties, prosecutors excluded black jurors at three times the rate of white jurors between 2003 and 2012, according to Reprieve Australia, a legal-assistance group. “You see all-white or nearly all-white juries at capital murder trials where you’d never expect it given the diversity of the population,” says Smith of the Fair Punishment Project.

Florida and Alabama also diminish the influence of any juror who wants to spare a defendant’s life. They are the only states that don’t require a unanimous vote for execution. Between 2010 and 2015, there was only one unanimous verdict among 13 death sentences in Jefferson County and Mobile County, both on the list of 16. Of the 24 death sentences Angela Corey has won, three came from unanimous juries. The jury split 8 to 4 in eight cases, and in three others, the vote was 7 to 5.

Many of the 16 counties where the death penalty is prevalent have a criminal-justice system with a power structure similar to Duval’s. Whites retain control to a striking degree, despite the presence of sizable numbers of African-Americans or Latinos. This phenomenon is the most pronounced within the former borders of the Confederacy. “Alabama has 19 appellate judges,” says Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which represents clients on death row in the state. “They are all white. Fourteen percent of the trial judges are black. Out of 42 elected prosecutors in the state, one is black.” Stevenson says that by seeking numerous death sentences, prosecutors in the Deep South “hark back to the history of using the criminal-justice system to maintain racial control.” Mobile County is the site of the last known lynching in the country, in 1981. (After a jury deadlocked in the trial of a black man accused of killing a white police officer, two Ku Klux Klan members abducted a black 19-year-old who had nothing to do with the death, cut his throat and hanged his body from a tree.) Jefferson had the state’s highest total of lynchingsbetween 1877 and 1950. In Caddo Parish, men have been hanged outside the courthouse, where a monument to the Confederacy still stands on the front lawn.

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. Two lawyers, Ann Finnell and Patrick McGuinness, won a storied acquittal in 2000 for a black 15-year-old in Jacksonville, which became the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning.” (The boy was accused of killing a white tourist and wrongly identified by her husband and gave a false confession.)

Death Penalty Still Lives

The Rev. Reginald Gundy at Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church. Gundy has called for unseating Angela Corey, the state attorney in Jacksonville and a strong supporter of the death penalty, in a coming election. Credit Jessica Dimmock/VII, for The New York Times

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.

In 2012 and 2013, the Florida Supreme Court deemed Eler’s representation “deficient” in two death-penalty cases. In one, the justices called for a resentencing because Eler failed to follow up on indications that his 18-year-old client had brain damage and had been physically and sexually abused. Similar claims, for ineffective assistance of counsel, are pending on behalf of two more of Eler’s clients, sentenced to death in 2005. Last year, a trial judge in Jacksonvilleordered a new trial for another client of Eler’s, Raymond Morrison Jr., who confessed to a murder it appears he didn’t commit. The judge said Eler didn’t investigate Morrison’s possible alibi or his reported history of making false confessions. “It was like he had no attorney,” Martin McClain, Morrison’s new lawyer, says.

Eler says that he absolutely provided an adequate defense to each of these clients and that he’s being criticized for strategic decisions. “Armchair quarterbacking is great,” he says. “But I look back, and I see a lot of intangibles that go into a jury trial.” Shirk says he has full confidence in Eler. “There were issues in a couple of old cases, but hindsight is 20/20.”

Eler has not had a role in the Rhodes case. Rhodes’s lawyer, Debra Billard, who was supervised by Finnell for years, frequently visited Rhodes in jail. She also interviewed members of his family to compile the extensive evidence of abuse and trauma throughout his life.

The low quality of defense provided by some court-appointed private lawyers has had a demonstrable effect in the 16 counties. In some, judges personally choose lawyers for death-penalty cases, and they can pick ones who they know won’t put up a fight. For private lawyers, the financial incentives don’t always line up with their clients’ interests. The best chance for saving a client’s life often comes in the plea-bargaining stage but usually requires long hours, often with an investigator to gather mitigating evidence. Yet in some counties, including Los Angeles and Riverside, Calif., lawyers are paid much more for taking a case to trial than for negotiating a plea. In Los Angeles, private lawyers have accumulated nearly 30 new death sentences since 2010, while the public defenders have only four. A single private lawyer in Riverside County has 15 death sentences on his record. “One of the evil things in this business, where lawyers are appointed, is that some don’t want their cases to plead,” says Stephen B. Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta and the author of a much-cited law review article, “Counsel for the Poor: The Death Sentence Not for the Worst Crime But for the Worst Lawyer,” published in 1994. “Going to trial is a payday for them.”

The Fair Punishment Project found that in nine of the 16 counties, including Duval, the median time the defense spent persuading the jury to spare a client’s life was one day or less. “A good lawyer can spend weeks with the jury on mitigation,” says Rob Smith, the project’s director.

Capital punishment must be limited to offenders “whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution,’ ” Justice Kennedy wrote in 2005. But Smith’s team found that the death penalty is often given to those with crippling impairments, like severe mental illness or brain damage, which often are not fully aired for the jury at trial.

Angela Corey and Matt Shirk are currently running for re-election, in a primary to be held on Aug. 30. A campaign to defeat Corey has allied Pastor Gundy and Darlene Farah with activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, who called for Corey’s ouster at a rally against police violence in July. Also working to unseat Corey is a group of prominent lawyers from the local bar association, including Hank Coxe, the former Florida Bar president. They urged another former prosecutor, Melissa Nelson, a Republican, to run against Corey and are raising money for her. Nelson, who declined to comment for this article, is one of the lawyers who represented Cristian Fernandez, the 12-year-old whom Corey prosecuted as an adult.

Matt Shirk, who is far behind in the polls, also has a strong opponent backed by local lawyers: Charles Cofer, a former county judge who worked in the public defender’s office in the 1980s. Shirk is reeling from an unrelated scandal. In 2013, three female employees accused him of sexual harassment. “I think if we had sex, there would be very little awkwardness after,” Shirk wrote to one of them in an e-card. He fired her, along with the other two, after his wife publicly confronted one of them. A grand jury investigated and called on Shirk to resign. He apologized instead.

No Democrat is running for state attorney or public defender in Duval County, leaving the general election in November uncontested. That means the Republican pri­mary will decide both races. In such a circumstance, Florida law calls for opening the primary to voters of all parties. But there’s a loophole (created by Florida’s former secretary of state Katherine Harris, of Bush v. Gore notoriety): The primary closes if a write-in candidate files for the general election, even though he or she will be represented on the ballot only by a blank box.

In May, Corey’s campaign manager filed papers for the write-in candidacy of a Corey supporter. (A write-in candidate also entered the public-defender race.) Facing criticism for shutting out 440,000 Democratic and independent voters, including 96 percent of eligible black voters, Corey said she knew nothing about her campaign manager’s actions but that any voter could change his or her party registration. “People who care won’t be disenfranchised,” she told the press.

Death Penalty Still Lives

A tattoo on the arm of Shelby’s sister, Nycole. Credit Jessica Dimmock/VII, for The New York Times

Pastor Gundy announced in July that he had changed his registration to Republican so he could vote in the primary. He urged other voters to follow suit, and about 4,200 have done so. Nonetheless, Rodney Hurst, the N.A.A.C.P. leader, says that the coming election bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the all-white primaries that were a feature of Southern politics until the Supreme Court outlawed them in 1944. In the end, an all-Republican primary may not help Corey. She is trailing Nelson in polls restricted to the party’s voters, with 64 percent saying it’s “time for someone new.”

In July, Darlene Farah’s son, Caleb, called de la Rionda, the prosecutor, to say that he was putting his personal feelings aside: He thought the state should let Rhodes plead guilty and take a life sentence. “He said he doesn’t like what this case is doing to our family,” Darlene said. “My heart hit the floor.” Soon after, Darlene got a card from James Rhodes, which he made for her 50th birthday. “I thank your son for changing his mind,” he wrote. “I thank you for trying to save my life when I gave up on my own life.”

In January, the Supreme Court invalidated Florida’s capital-punishment law, because it didn’t require juries to find at least one aggravating factor before imposing the death penalty. (Alabama has a similar rule, which the court’s decision called into doubt.) The Florida Legislature rushed to pass a new sentencing law, which was also challenged, and an appeal is pending before the Florida Supreme Court. Depending on the court’s ruling, many of the nearly 400 inmates on the state’s death row could have a new avenue of appeal, and hope of averting execution.

It’s not clear how the election for state attorney will affect Rhodes’s trial, which was postponed in early August because of the uncertain status of Florida’s death-penalty law. Melissa Nelson, who supports capital punishment, has not promised to spare him if she is elected. But she has publicly faulted Corey for treating Darlene Farah badly, and Farah hopes she can discuss the case with Nelson if she wins.

While unseating a chief prosecutor like Angela Corey tends to reduce death sentences, the longtime expectations of veterans in the system — judges and staff lawyers who specialize in trying homicide cases — can keep the gears of death-penalty prosecutions turning. Lee Kovarsky, a University of Maryland law professor, calls this “muscle memory.” The prosecutors who try death-penalty cases are often “some of the top people in the office,” says Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia. “It’s a tall order to make them stop.”

The surest way to reverse the momentum is to make it hard to win in court by raising the quality of the defense. In the last several years, Virginia and Georgia each adopted a statewide system of capital-defender offices with salaried lawyers and investigators. In Virginia, formerly the nation’s second biggest executioner (after Texas), no one has been sentenced to death in five years. Juries in Georgia have delivered only four death sentences in the last six years.

A related shift is evident even in Harris County, Tex., home to Houston and its suburbs and the center of American capital punishment since the 1970s. Cost concerns and a statewide string of exonerations have reduced support for the death penalty to the lowest point in 35 years. Only 27 percent of residents would choose to impose it over life imprisonment, according to an annual survey released in April. Texas Defender Service, a public-interest legal organization, has been training and consulting with court-appointed lawyers to improve the quality of death-penalty representation. No one has received a new death sentence in Harris County since 2014.

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?”

Emily Bazelon
New York Times