L.A. County leads the U.S. in sentencing convicts to death penalty

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WASHINGTON — Although Texas executes far more prisoners than any other state, Los Angeles and three other Southern California counties lead the nation in sentencing convicts to die, according to a report released Wednesday.

Los Angeles County had 228 inmates on death row at the start of the year, more than double that of second-place Harris County, Texas. Riverside, Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino counties also ranked in the top 12, as did Alameda and Sacramento counties. In all, seven of the top 12 were in California.

The data were compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington to show how capital punishment is concentrated in relatively few places in the United States.

"The death penalty is not as American or as widespread as people might assume. It is clustered in a few counties," said Richard Dieter, the group's executive director.

Because most criminal cases are prosecuted by county district attorneys, not state officials, Dieter examined the death penalty data by county. Some district attorneys regularly seek death sentences, while others never do, he said.

"Only 2 percent of the counties in the U.S. have been responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976. Likewise, only 2 percent of the counties are responsible for the majority of today's death row population," the report says.

There is little correlation between the counties that condemn the most prisoners to die and those that execute the most. That may reflect the differences between the judges who hear inmates' appeals: In California, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, and the often liberal state appellate judges; in Texas, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, and conservative state appellate jurists. Prisoners can challenge their convictions and sentences with multiple appeals through state and federal courts.

Since 1976, Texas has executed 502 convicts, while California has put 13 to death. The report lists 62 counties that are responsible for the most executions, none of which are in California.

Nonetheless, the report demonstrates that California district attorneys have been willing to seek, and California juries have been willing to impose, the death penalty on convicted murderers.

At the start of 2013, the counties that had sent the most inmates to death row across the nation were Los Angeles, 228; Harris (Houston), Texas, 101; Philadelphia, 88; Maricopa, Ariz., 81; Riverside, 76; Clark, Nev., 61; Orange, 61; Duval, Fla., 60; Alameda, 42; San Diego, 40; San Bernardino, 37; and Sacramento, 35.

Nine of the top counties for executions were in Texas or Oklahoma. Harris was first with 115, followed by Dallas County, Texas, with 50.