PHOENIX — A Harvard Law study found 16 counties in the United States have had incidences of racial bias and misconduct during death penalty cases. Maricopa County made the list of 16 out of more than 3,000 counties in the country.
“We looked at every case decided on direct appeal over the last decade, 2006 through 2015,” said Robert Smith, director of the Fair Punishment Project which released the report in August, and senior research fellow at Harvard Law School.
Smith said they looked at the times prosecutorial misconduct was raised as an issue, where it was found as an issue and whether or not that misconduct led to reversal. There were several other factors in the methodology.
“What we saw in Maricopa County that struck us the most was the pattern of over-zealousness from the prosecution,” said Smith. “Both in terms of pushing the ethical and legal boundaries in cases, and also seeking the death sentence and obtaining it some of the most broken and vulnerable people.”
On the other end of the legal spectrum, Smith said, researchers found inadequate defense.
“People who over and over again weren’t visiting their clients, people who weren’t presenting enough mitigation,” he said.
“When you look at each of those levels and you say you can look and the prosecutors and it’s bad, you can look at the defense lawyers and it’s bad,” Smith said, “you can look at the problems with race and it’s bad, you can look at the brokenness and the vulnerability of the people they sentence to death and it’s bad.”
The report indicated three prosecutors in the Maricopa County Attorney’s office, specifically Jeannette Gallagher, Juan Martinez and Vincent Imbordino, “account for more than one-third of capital cases.”
The research also referenced Debra Milke, who spent 22 years on death row after her 4-year-old son was murdered in 1989 before being released as an example of “innocence.”
“If all of those things aren’t enough, the fact that people have been sent to death row and then released and are out today because they didn’t do it, and were innocent … that’s got to bring it home,” Smith said.
The time frame includes Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, elected in 2004 and disbarred by the Arizona Supreme Court in 2012. The report indicates Maricopa has “sought and obtained fewer death sentences” since current Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery took over in a special election in 2010.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office declined to comment further about the study.