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FAIR PUNISHMENT PROJECT

AMERICA’S TOP FIVE
DEADLIEST
PROSECUTORS:

How Overzealous Personalities
Drive The Death Penalty

JUNE 2016

Last year, a journalist asked Dale Cox, then the District Attorney of Caddo Parish,
Louisiana, about the wisdom of the death penalty in light of the recent exoneration
of Glenn Ford, a man who spent thirty years on death row for a crime that he did not
commit.1 Cox told the reporter: “I think we need to kill more people.”2 “Revenge,”
he said, “brings to us a visceral satisfaction.”3 Between 2010 and 2015, Cox alone
secured one-third of Louisiana’s death sentences.4
Cox’s disproportionate use of the death penalty illustrates a point that Justice
Stephen Breyer recently made. “It is now unusual to find capital punishment in the
United States,”5 Breyer wrote, because “capital prosecutions are being pursued
in only a few isolated counties.”6 There are more than 3,100 counties,7 2,400 head
prosecutors,8 and thousands of line prosecutors in America—yet only a tiny handful
of prosecutors are responsible for a vastly disproportionate number of death
sentences. The question that this disparity prompts is: Why?

1	

Alexandria Burris, Glenn Ford, Exonerated Death Row Inmate, Dies, USA Today, Jun. 29, 2015, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/
nation/2015/06/29/glenn-ford-exonerated-death-row-inmate-dies/29489433/.

2	

Vickie Welborn, ADA On Death Penalty: ‘We Need To Kill More People’, Shreveport Times,Mar. 27, 2015, http://www.shreveporttimes.
com/story/news/local/2015/03/27/glenn-ford-dale-cox-charles-scott-caddo-parish-death-penalty-execution-martystroud/70529188/.

3	

Leon Neyfakh, Bloodthirsty Prosecutor Who Said “We Need To Kill More People” Will Not Run For Reelection, Slate (Jul. 14, 2015), http://
www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/07/14/dale_cox_louisiana_prosecutor_with_horrendous_death_penalty_views_will_not.html.

4	

1 County, 2 Prosecutors Responsible for 3/4 of Recent Louisiana Death Sentences, Amid Charges of Prosecutorial Misconduct, Death Penalty
Info. Ctr. (2015), http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/node/6097.

5	

Glossip v. Gross, 135 S.Ct. 2726, 2774 (2015).

6	

Id. See also Robert J. Smith, America’s Deadliest Prosecutors, Slate (May 14, 2015), http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/
jurisprudence/2015/05/america_s_deadliest_prosecutors_death_penalty_sentences_in_louisiana_florida.html; Richard C. Dieter, The
2% Death Penalty: How A Minority Of Counties Produce Most Death Cases At Enormous Costs To All, Death Penalty Info. Ctr. (2013),
available at http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/TwoPercentReport.pdf.

7	

How Many Counties Are There In The United States?, U.S. Geological Surv., https://www2.usgs.gov/faq/categories/9799/2971 (explaining
that “there are 3,141 counties and county equivalents in the 50 States and the District of Columbia.”).

8	

Kyle Swenson, Florida’s Elected State Attorneys: Overwhelmingly White And Male, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Jul. 9, 2015, http://
www.browardpalmbeach.com/news/floridas-elected-state-attorneys-overwhelmingly-white-and-male-7101778.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

2

This report analyzes the records of five of America’s deadliest head prosecutors.
Three of them personally obtained over 35 death sentences each: Joe Freeman Britt
in North Carolina, Bob Macy in Oklahoma, and Donnie Myers in South Carolina.
These men shared an obsession with winning death sentences at almost any cost.9
For example, Joe Freeman Britt, who committed misconduct in more than 36%
of his death penalty prosecutions,10 said: “Within the breast of each of us burns
a flame that constantly whispers in our ear ‘preserve life, preserve life, preserve
life at any cost.’ It is the prosecutor’s job to extinguish that flame.”11 The remaining
two prosecutors, Lynne Abraham (Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania) and Johnny
Holmes (Harris County, Texas), did not personally prosecute as many death penalty
cases as the three men above, but nonetheless oversaw the imposition of death
sentences against a staggering 10812 and 201 people,13 respectively, during their
terms.
Of these five prosecutors, only one—Donnie Myers—remains in office, and he
plans to retire at the end of the year.14 One of the most remarkable findings from
our research is the fact that once these prosecutors and their protégés left their
positions, death sentences dramatically declined in these jurisdictions--a pattern
that has only become clear in the years since their departures. 	
We also highlight five additional prosecutors who came very close to becoming
members of this notorious group. These runners-up have egregious records in
their own states, and like the prosecutors above, the striking drop in new death
sentences that has occurred in their respective jurisdictions since their departures
illustrates their outsized impact on the death penalty.
Unfortunately, the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing has continued
beyond the tenure of these prosecutors. Over the past fifteen years, prosecutors
have pursued far fewer capital cases and juries have returned far fewer death
sentences than in years past. Indeed, in 2015, juries returned just 49 death
sentences, the fewest in recent history. This number represents an 84.4% drop from

9	

See, e.g., John A. Horowitz, Prosecutorial Discretion And The Death Penalty: Creating A Committee To Decide Whether To See The Death
Penalty, 65 Fordham L. Rev. 2571 (1997), available at http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3377&context=flr
(examining prosecutorial discretion in the context of the death penalty).

10	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet: Donnie Myers, Joe Freeman Bitt, and Bob Macy, http://fairpunishment.org/wp-content/
uploads/2016/06/Americas-Deadliest-Prosecutors-Donnie-Myers-Joe-Freeman-Britt-and-Bob-Macy.xlsx.

11	

Barry Saunders, An End To Joe Freeman Britt’s Brand Of Justice, News & Observer, Apr. 11, 2016,
http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/barry-saunders/article71222712.html.

12	

Robert Brett Dunham, Assistant Federal Defender, Federal Public Defender Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Death Row: 1990-2014 (Feb. 23, 2015).

13	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet, supra note 10.

14	

Andy Shain & Tim Flach, Veteran Lexington Prosecutor Myers Retiring, The State, Mar. 15, 2016, http://www.thestate.com/news/local/
article66304792.html.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

3

the 1996 high of 315 death verdicts.15 However, in the increasingly small number of
the counties that still actively sentence people to death, a handful of prosecutors
dominate death-sentencing statistics.
In the final section of this report, we offer a snapshot of three active prosecutors
who, if they continue on their current trajectories, may soon join the ranks of the
deadliest prosecutors in America. Taken together, the profiles featured in this report
demonstrate that the death penalty has been, and continues to be, a personalitydriven system with very few safeguards against misconduct and frequent abuse of
power, a fact that seriously undermines its legitimacy.

15	

Death Sentences By Year: 1976-2014, Death Penalty Info. Ctr., http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/death-sentences-year-1977-2009
(last visited May 26, 2016).

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

4

THE WORST
OF THE WORST
“Within the breast of each of us burns a flame that
constantly whispers in our ear ‘preserve life, preserve life,
preserve life at any cost,’” Joe Freeman Britt once said.
“It is the prosecutor’s job to extinguish that flame.”
16

#1

NAME
COUNTY
# OF DEATH
SENTENCES
YEARS IN
OFFICE

JOE FREEMAN BRITT
ROBESON COUNTY, NC
38
1974-1988 (14 YEARS)

MISCONDUCT
ALLEGED

81.6% (31/38)

MISCONDUCT
FOUND

36.8% (14/38)

EXONERATIONS

2

Joe Freeman Britt was the head prosecutor for Robeson County, North Carolina,
from 1974 to 1988.17 He personally obtained 38 death sentences,18 more than any
other prosecutor in the state’s history,19 and his status as “the deadliest prosecutor
in America” is recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records.20

16	

See Saunders, supra note 11.

17	

Matt Schudel, Joe Freeman Britt, Prosecutor Who Sent Dozens To Death Row, Dies At 80, Wash. Post, Apr. 15, 2016, https://www.
washingtonpost.com/national/joe-freeman-britt-prosecutor-who-sent-dozens-to-death-row-dies-at-80/2016/04/15/b246f27e025b-11e6-b823-707c79ce3504_story.html.

18	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet, supra note 10. This number is lower than reported in some sources because of
the methodology used in this report. We chose not to include concurrent death sentences, due to their duplicative and essentially
symbolic nature.

19	

See Schudel, supra note 17. Schudel explains that “after just one year on the job, Mr. Britt had won more death-row convictions
than any other prosecutor in the country.” Despite the fact that these sentences were later overturned because of North Carolina’s
unconstitutional pre-Gregg legislative response to Furman v. Georgia, Britt’s record still exceeded any other prosecutor at the time.

20	

Richard A. Oppel Jr., As Two Men Go Free, a Dogged Ex-Prosecutor Digs In, N.Y. Times, Sept. 7, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/08/
us/as-2-go-free-joe-freeman-britt-a-dogged-ex-prosecutor-digs-in.html?_r=0.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

5

At one point, one out of every 25 death row inmates nationwide had been
prosecuted by Joe Freeman Britt.21 With the District Attorney’s office under
Britt’s control, a person in Robeson County was almost 100 times more likely to be
sentenced to death than a randomly selected person in the United States.22 What’s
even more striking is that in the 27 years before Britt’s arrival, no one in Robeson
County had been sentenced to death,23 and with Britt out of office, Robeson
County has imposed only two death sentences in the past decade.24 Therefore, the
remarkable increase in death sentences during Britt’s tenure is likely due to Britt’s
overzealous prosecution, and not a reflection of abnormally high support for the
death penalty by local residents.
Courts found that Britt committed misconduct in 14 of his death penalty trials,25 and
at the height of Britt’s self-styled “blitz” on murderers, the North Carolina Supreme
Court frequently condemned his tactics.26 For example, defendant John Wesley
Oliver received a new sentencing hearing because Britt failed to give to the defense
an eyewitness’s statement that cast doubt on the state’s contention that Oliver was
the shooter.27
In prosecuting Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, two intellectually disabled
brothers, Britt failed to notify the defense about a cigarette butt found at the crime
scene, which DNA testing would later link to a different man.28 Britt complained
that “[w]hen we tried those cases, every time they would bring in shrinks to talk
about how retarded they were. It went on and on and on, blah-blah-blah.”29 In
addition, Brown was only 15 years old when he was charged.30 McCollum, who
was 19 years old, sustained hours of “intense questioning,” without speaking to an

21	

See Cynthia F. Adcock, The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Post-Furman Executions in N.C.: A History of One S. St.’s Evolving Standards of
Decency, 1 Elon L. Rev. 113, 119 n.27 (2009), available at http://www.elon.edu/docs/e-web/law/law_review/issues/adcock.pdf
(citing Dee Reid, ‘Killer’ DA: In First 28 Months On Job, He Won 23 Death Verdicts, Nat’l L. J., Sept. 17, 1984, at col. 3).

22	

Compare Population Overview: 1970-1995, N.C. Off. of St. Budget and Mgmt., https://ncosbm.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/
demog/pop7095.html (last visited May 9, 2016) (displaying population statistics for Robeson, NC), with Historical National Population
Estimates: July 1, 1990 to July 1, 1999, U.S. Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/population/estimates/nation/popclockest.txt
(last visited May 9, 2016) (displaying population statistics for U.S.).

23	

See Schudel, supra note 17.

24	

Smith, supra note 6.

25	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet, supra note 10.

26	

Hunter James, ‘Deadliest Prosecutor’ Has Achieved 41 Death Sentences, Gainesville Sun, March 16, 1986, at 1B, available at https://news.
google.com/newspapers?nid=dBzKUGQurMsC&dat=19860316&printsec=frontpage&hl=en.

27	

Robert P. Mosteller, Exculpatory Evidence, Ethics, and the Road to the Disbarment of Mike Nifong: The Critical Importance of Full Open-File
Discovery, 15 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 257, 261 n.11 (2008), available at
http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2486&context=faculty_scholarship.

28	

Joseph Neff, DNA Evidence Could Free 2 Men In 1983 Case, Charlotte Observer, Sept. 2, 2014, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/
news/local/crime/article9159632.html.

29	

Victor Li, Retired Prosecutor Who Convicted Two Men Just Exonerated After 30 Years Behind Bars Is Unrepentant, ABA J., Sept. 8, 2014,
http://www.abajournal.com/mobile/article/ex_prosecutor_convicted_two_men_of_rape_and_murder_exonerated_afer_30_years.

30	

State v. McCollum, 433 S.E.2d 144, 160 (1993); see also Op-Ed., How To Reduce Coerced Confessions And Wrongful Convictions, L.A.
Times, Oct. 14, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-recordings-police-interrogations-20141015-story.html.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

6

attorney or parent, and signed a confession only upon “a
promise [he] could go home.”31 Britt relied on McCollum’s
coerced statement to prosecute and seek death for the
brothers, despite the mitigating fact that McCollum was
“mentally retarded and easily influenced by others.”32 After
DNA testing exonerated the men, Britt simply doubled
down, insisting the two were “absolutely” guilty.33 Both
men spent 30 years in prison for a crime they didn’t
commit, including time on death row. On June 4, 2014,
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory formally pardoned
Brown and McCollum.34

Henry McCollum and Leon Brown
Photo by Corey Lowenstein, The News & Observer

When the current Robeson County District Attorney called Britt “a bully” and
chastised him for his unethical behavior in the McCollum case, Britt shot back,
calling the new D.A. a “pussy” who had been “hanging around too much with the
wine and cheese crowd.”35 Even in his retirement, Britt displayed the same attributes
that the North Carolina Supreme Court had rebuked him for two decades earlier.
“Ministers of the law ought not to permit zeal in its enforcement to cause them to
transgress its precepts,” the court wrote.36 “They should remember that where the
law ends, tyranny begins.”37 This “flagrant disregard”38 for well-established rules
earned Britt notoriety as “a living symbol of the gross, almost medieval nature of the
justice system in small Southern counties.”39 As one journalist quipped, “Good Lord in
Heaven, man. He did know he was dealing with people’s lives and not auditioning for
‘Matlock,’ right?”40
Prosecutorial misconduct was found in more than one-third of Britt’s death penalty
cases.41

31	Op-Ed., supra note 30.
32	

McCollum, 433 S.E.2d at 161-62.

33	

See Schudel, supra note 17.

34	

Craig Jarvis, Gov. McCrory Pardons Half-Brothers Imprisoned for Decades, Charlotte Observer, June 4, 2015, http://www.
charlotteobserver.com/news/politics-government/article23092284.html.

35	

Oppel, supra note 20.

36	

State v. Thompson, 290 N.C. 431, 448 (1976).

37	

Id.

38	

Id. at 449.

39	

Hamilton Nolan, Prosecutor Who Sent Innocent Man To Death Row Proud He’s No “Pussy”, Gawker (Sept. 8, 2014), http://gawker.com/
prosecutor-who-sent-innocent-man-to-death-row-proud-hes-1631877118.

40	

See Saunders, supra note 11.

41	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet, supra note 10.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

7

“There is no better example of how a weak state judicial
system was overpowered by a powerful and malicious
district attorney than that of Cowboy Bob Macy and the
Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.”
PROFESSOR RYAN PATRICK ALFORD.42

#2

NAME
AKA
COUNTY
# OF DEATH
SENTENCES
YEARS IN
OFFICE

ROBERT H. MACY
“COWBOY” BOB MACY
OKLAHOMA COUNTY, OK
54
1980-2001 (21 YEARS)

MISCONDUCT
ALLEGED

94.4% (51/54)

MISCONDUCT
FOUND

33.3% (18/54)

EXONERATIONS

3

“Cowboy” Bob Macy sent more people to death row than any other individual
district attorney in the United States. He was personally responsible for 54 death
sentences,43 more than the current death row populations of Colorado, Indiana,
New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming combined.44 Under Macy,
Oklahoma County had more death sentences than it had seen in the previous 40
years.45 The number dropped precipitously after he retired: Oklahoma County has
only had three death sentences in the past six years.46

42	

Ryan Patrick Alford, Catalyzing More Adequate Fed. Habeas Rev. Of Summation Misconduct: Persuasion Theory And The Sixth Am. Right To
An Unbiased Jury, 59 Okla. L. R. 479, 491 (2006), available at http://adams.law.ou.edu/olr/articles/vol59/301Alford4articleblu.pdf.

43	

See Nolan Clay & Bryan Dean, Former Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy Dies, Oklahoman, Nov. 19, 2011, http://newsok.
com/article/3624881.

44	

Deborah Fins, NAACP Legal Def. and Educ. Fund, Inc., Death Row U.S.A. 36-37 (2016) [hereinafter Death Row U.S.A.], available at
http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/DRUSAWinter2016.pdf.

45	

Amnesty International, Old Habits Die Hard: The Death Penalty In Oklahoma 54 n.101 (2001), available at https://www.amnesty.org/
en/documents/AMR51/055/2001/en/ (noting that only “twelve of the 82 men (14.6 per cent) executed in Oklahoma between 1915
and 1966 were prosecuted in Oklahoma County,” while “fifteen of the 40 prisoners (37.5) put to death since 1990 were prosecuted
there”).

46	

Brain Hardzinski, Why Oklahoma County Backed Off Pursuing The Death Penalty, KGOU, Aug. 18, 2015, http://kgou.org/post/whyoklahoma-county-backed-pursuing-death-penalty#stream/0.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

8

Like Joe Freeman Britt, Macy had a combative personality that drew attention and
controversy. Bob Macy kept an old stack of baseball cards on his desk.47 The front
of the cards showed images of Macy riding a horse, while the back sides conveyed
“accomplishments,” such as being the “nation’s leading death penalty prosecutor”
and sending over 40 people to death row.48 He hung a movie poster from the film
“Tombstone” in his office that read: “Justice is Coming.”49 In one capital murder trial,
Macy physically pushed a defense attorney in front of the jury.50 Another time,
Macy “was dragged from the courtroom after reaching for his gun when a jury
acquitted six defendants.”51
Macy once told a jury that sentencing the defendant to death was a “patriotic duty”
similar to military service.52 He boasted about his prosecution of 16-year-old Sean
Sellers, who was executed before the U.S. Supreme Court barred death sentences for
juveniles.53 Macy mocked the notions of mental illness and trauma when they were
presented as mitigating evidence. In one case, he told the jury that defendant Earl
Alexander Frederick, Jr. must have “dreamed up” the claim that he “had been sexually
molested as a child by his mother.”54
Prosecutorial misconduct was found in approximately
one-third of Macy’s death penalty cases.55 In fact,
Macy’s “extreme prosecutorial misconduct,”56 which
included findings of inappropriate behavior in 18 of his
death penalty cases,57 contributed to the conviction and
condemnation of innocent people. Courts reversed nearly
half of his death sentences, and three of the people Macy
helped to convict were later exonerated and freed from
death row.58
Curtis McCarty, exonerated after prosecutorial misconduct was exposed.
Photo by Teri Robinson
47	

Sara Rimer, A Proud And Unwavering Believer In The Death Penalty, N.Y. Times, Feb. 10, 2001, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/10/
us/public-lives-a-proud-and-unwavering-believer-in-the-death-penalty.html.

48	

Id.

49	

Clay & Dean, supra note 43.

50	

Howell v. State, 882 P.2d 1086, 1094 (Okla.Crim.App. 1994).

51	

Mark Fuhrman, Death and Justice: An Expose Of Oklahoma’s Death Row Machine 25 (2003); see also Nolan Clay, Macy Dragged From
Court After Jury Frees 6 Suspects, Oklahoman, Apr. 18, 1990, http://newsok.com/article/2314197.

52	

Moore v. Reynolds, 153 F.3d 1086, 1113 (10th Cir. 1998)

53	Rimer, supra note 47.
54	

Frederick v. State, 37 P.3d 919, 948 (Okla.Crim.App. 2001).

55	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet, supra note 10.

56	

See Alford, supra note 42, at 494.

57	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet, supra note 10.

58	

Bowen v. Maynard, 799 F.2d 593 (10th Cir. 1986) (exculpating Bowen); Jay F. Marks & Ken Raymond, Ex-Death Row Inmate A Free Man,
Judge Calls Case Tainted By Misconduct, Oklahoman, May 12, 2007, http://newsok.com/article/3052699 (explaining Curtis McCarty’s
innocence); Graham Lee Brewer, Oklahoma Executes Man For Two Rapes, Murders, Oklahoman, Dec. 11, 2013, http://newsok.com/
article/3913351 (explaining Robert Lee Miller, Jr.’s exoneration).

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

9

In his first capital case, in which twelve witnesses confirmed the defendant’s alibi
that he was “300 miles away at a rodeo,” Macy hid a much more credible suspect’s
identity from the defense.59 A federal appellate court reversed the death sentence,
holding that “Bowen’s alibi would have been viewed in a different light” if the jury
heard about the other suspect.60 But Macy did not learn his lesson from the Bowen
case.
Joyce Gilchrist, a disgraced scientist once known as the “darling of Macy’s lethal
forensics squad,” helped Macy win cases by “misidentifying evidence” and “giving
improper courtroom testimony.”61 Bob Macy wrongfully prosecuted Robert Lee
Miller, Jr. after Gilchrist characterized hair follicle evidence as conclusive of guilt
during trial;62 many years later, DNA evidence exonerated Mr. Miller.63 When Macy
prosecuted Loyd Lafevers, Gilchrist lied in her trial testimony, denying that she had
performed any blood tests because the results would have hurt the prosecution.64
Macy then relied on Gilchrist’s lies to mislead the jury, suggesting that the blood
belonged to Lafevers and the victim, even though both he and Gilchrist knew that it
belonged to someone else.65
Indeed, Macy retired early due to revelations about misconduct shortly after his use
of fabricated evidence was publicly exposed.66

59	

Ben Fenwick, Bob Macy: A Look Back, Oklahoma Gazette, Jan. 12, 2011, http://okgazette.com/2011/01/12/bob-macy-a-look-back/.

60	

See Bowen, 799 F.2d at 612-13.

61	

Randall Coyne, Dead Wrong In Oklahoma, 42 Tulsa L. R. 209, 236 (2006).

62	

Id.

63	

Id.

64	

Lafevers v. Gibson, 238 F.3d 1263, 1266 (10th Cir. 2001).

65	

Id.

66	

Megan K. Stack, Prosecutor’s Days in Saddle Ending in Controversy, L.A. Times, May 17, 2001, http://articles.latimes.com/2001/
may/17/news/mn-64599. Jeffrey Todd Pierce, convicted of rape despite faulty testimony from Gilchrist and “extreme prosecutorial
misconduct” by Macy, was exonerated in 2001 due to DNA evidence. See Elisabeth Salemme, Faces of the Innocence Project: Jeffrey
Pierce, Time (2007), http://content.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1627368_1627366_1627379,00.html (last visited
May 9, 2016).

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

10

“The only reason he gets up in the morning is to try death
penalty cases.”
U.S. ATTORNEY BILL NETTLES

#3

NAME
AKA
COUNTY
# OF DEATH
SENTENCES
YEARS IN
OFFICE

DONALD V. MYERS
DONNIE “DR. DEATH” MYERS
11TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT, SC
(SALUDA, EDGEFIELD, MCCORMICK, LEXINGTON)

39
1977-CURRENT (38 YEARS)

MISCONDUCT
ALLEGED

61.5% (24/39)

MISCONDUCT
FOUND

46.2% (18/39)

Solicitor Donnie “Dr. Death” Myers67 personally secured 39 death sentences,68
more than any other prosecutor in South Carolina history.69 Known as a “fire-andbrimstone” prosecutor who is “passionate” about the death penalty, Myers “keeps
on his desk a small paperweight model of South Carolina’s electric chair[.]”70 Bill
Nettles, currently a United States Attorney for the District of South Carolina, said
of Myers, “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.” Myers himself explained, “This is about all I’ve got. If I had to go home and
be by myself, I would shoot my damn self.”71

67	

Eric Frazier, Lawyer Relishes Death Row Record, Charlotte Observer, Sept. 12, 2000, http://fairpunishment.org/wp-content/
uploads/2016/06/Charlotte-Observer_Nettles-quote.pdf

68	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet, supra note 10.

69	

John Monk, Avenging Angel? A Look At 5 of Donnie Myers’ More Memorable Death Penalty Cases, The State, Mar. 19, 2015, http://www.
thestate.com/news/local/article67122927.html. Myers prosecuted Raymond Patterson in three different capital trials after multiple
reversals of Patterson’s death sentences. After Patterson’s third death sentence for the same crime was reversed, Patterson received
a life sentence. John H. Blume & Lindsey S. Vann, Forty Years of Death: The Past, Present, and Future of the Death Penalty in S. C. (or Still
Arbitrary After All These Years), 11 Duke J. Const. L. & Pub. Pol’y n.198 (forthcoming Summer 2016).

70	O’Shea, supra note 67.
71	

Margaret N. O’Shea, Life’s Work Faces Threat In Ethics Case, Augusta Chron., Apr. 1, 2001,
http://old.chronicle.augusta.com/ stories/2001/04/01/met_310270.shtml.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

11

Myers used his charging discretion to seek the death penalty for some of the most
vulnerable people he prosecuted. For example, he pursued death for Kevin Mercer,
despite evidence of “cognitive deficiencies, including neurological dysfunction
and learning disabilities,” post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a “damaging
disability in terms of making judgments and inferences.”72 He put William Kelly73 and
Ted Powers74 on death row, even though both were under 18 at the time of their
crimes. Powers was only 16 years old.75
Courts have found that Myers committed misconduct in 18 capital cases, which
is approximately 46% of his cases.76 Six of his death sentences were overturned
due to his explicit misconduct.77 Myers wiretapped confidential communications
between defendants and their lawyers,78 and once allowed his team to have
ex parte communications with a potential juror to determine that he was not a
“criminal.”79 He was often accused of excluding jurors based on race,80 and used
misleading arguments to scare and anger juries. He was known to work himself to
tears at trial.81
In one case, Myers used a doll to demonstrate how an infant died and wheeled a
crib draped in a black shroud in front of the jury to stage a fake funeral.82 Myers
cried several times during his closing argument and told the jury that not returning
a death sentence would be like declaring “open season on babies in Lexington
County.”83 He also told the jury it “will kick the baby some more,” unless it returned
a death sentence.84 Myers later admitted that his own son’s death, resulting from
complications from mucopolysaccharidoses (a genetic condition that causes cell
damage), motivated him to get revenge.85

72	

State v. Mercer, 672 S.E.2d 556, 561 (S.C. 2009).

73	

State v. Kelly, 343 S.C. 350 (2001).

74	

State v. Powers, 331 S.C. 37 (1998).

75	

Rick Brundrett, Life-Or-Death Ruling Looms For Teen Killers, The State, Jan. 2, 2005, http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/fnews/1312511/posts.

76	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet, supra note 10.

77	

Id.

78	

State v. Quattlebaum, 338 S.C. 441, 447 (2000).

79	

In re Myers, 355 S.C. 1, 12 (2003).

80	

See, e.g., Patterson v. South Carolina, 110 S.Ct. 709 (1990); State v. Southerland, 316 S.C. 377 (1994); State v. Powers, 331 S.C. 37
(1998).

81	

State v. Northcutt, 372 S.C. 207, 229 (2007)

82	

Id. at 223.

83	

Id.

84	

Bryce Mursch, Sup. Ct. Overturns Death Sentence For Baby Killer, WIS-TV (Feb. 20, 2007), http://www.wistv.com/Global/story.
asp?s=6113797.

85	Beam, supra note 71.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

12

In another death penalty case, Myers referred to the African-American defendant,
Johnny Bennett, as “King Kong,” a “monster,” a “caveman,” and a “beast of burden,”
and elicited testimony referencing “black Indians.”86 U.S. District Judge Richard
Gergel held that this characterization “played upon a racist stereotype of the bestial
black savage that seems calculated to animate and excite the all-white Lexington
County jury.”87 Myers’ tactic worked—one juror later testified that he sentenced
Bennett to death because he was “just a dumb nigger.”88 In yet another case, the
U.S. Supreme Court found that Myers engaged in racial discrimination during jury
selection. At the retrial, Myers again engaged in improper jury selection, and again
the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction.89

86	

Bennett v. Stirling, CV 2:13-3191-RMG, 2016 WL 1070812, at *2 (D.S.C. Mar. 16, 2016).

87	

Id. at *9.

88	

Id. at *12.

89	

See Patterson v. South Carolina, 493 U.S. 1013 (1990); Patterson v. South Carolina, 500 U.S. 950 (1991).

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

13

#4

NAME
COUNTY
# OF DEATH
SENTENCES
YEARS IN
OFFICE
EXONERATIONS

LYNNE ABRAHAM
PHILADELPHIA COUNTY, PA
108
1991-2010 (19 YEARS)
2

Under the leadership of Lynne Abraham, who has been dubbed the “Queen of
Death”90 and “The Deadliest D.A.,”91 the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s
office obtained 108 death sentences.92 Abraham exhibited the same personality
quirks that Britt, Macy, and Myers shared. She described herself as “passionate”
about the death penalty.93 “I truly believe it is manifestly correct,” she said.94 After
overseeing her first execution, she described the killing as “a nonevent for me” and
emphasized, “I don’t feel anything.”95 Since Abraham’s departure from the office in
2010, her successor, Seth Williams, has overseen the imposition of just three death
sentences in the last six years.
Abraham was equally unfazed by death row exonerations, going so far as to interpret
a Philadelphia man’s release from death row as proof that “the system worked.”96
Indeed, before leaving office, Lynne Abraham was asked whether she ever secured
a death sentence against a person who did not deserve to die. She answered, “No,
I have not seen that.”97 However, at least two Philadelphia death row prisoners
who had their convictions overturned were retried during Abraham’s tenure and
acquitted.98
Abraham drew criticism for her apparent insensitivity to the complexities of race

90	

Jenn Carbin, A Matter of Life and Death, Phila. City Paper, Nov. 1-8, 2001, http://mycitypaper.com/articles/110101/cs.cover1.shtml.

91	

Tina Rosenberg, The Deadliest D. A., N.Y. Times, Jul. 16, 1995, http://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/16/magazine/the-deadliest-da.
html?pagewanted=all.

92	

Robert Brett Dunham, Assistant Federal Defender, Federal Public Defender Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Death Row: 1990-2014 (Feb. 23, 2015), http://fairpunishment.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/PHILApost-1990.pdf.

93	Rosenberg, supra note 91.
94	

Id.

95	

Id.

96	

Id.

97	

Id.

98	

See Jacqueline Soteropoulos, South Phila. Man Cleared in Slaying, Philly.com (Nov. 19, 2005), http://articles.philly.com/2005-11-19/
news/25430837_1_dna-testing-new-trial-death-row; Dave Racher, Pa. High Court Overturns Man’s Death Sentence, Philly.com (Feb. 19,
2000), http://articles.philly.com/2000-02-19/news/25573535_1_death-sentence-murder-conviction-and-death-drug-convictions.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

14

in the justice system.99 A reporter once noted that 85% of the inmates in the city’s
prison were Black, and asked Abraham whether she believed 85% of the city’s
crime was committed by African-Americans.100 “Yes, I do. I really do,” Abraham
responded.101
Unlike Britt, Macy, and Myers, Lynne Abraham did not try many death cases herself.
She entrusted that role to her assistant district attorneys, particularly Roger King.
King tried more capital cases than any other prosecutor in Pennsylvania history.102
He ultimately put at least 20 people on death row and personally claimed a number
of sentences in the “high 30s” by 1995.103 A wall of Roger King’s Philadelphia office
was papered with pictures of people he prosecuted who had been sentenced to
death.104 Each person’s face was circled in the picture with a line through it, and the
word “death” was written on each image.105
King was known to engage in specious trial tactics. Once, in urging the jury to
return a death sentence against a 16 year-old, King told jurors that mitigating
evidence about the defendant and his background was a mere “relic” of the “great
society [that has] failed” and should thus be ignored.106 In another case, King asked
jurors to vote for a death sentence in order to send a message to a judge who had
previously sentenced the defendant in a prior matter.107 The Pennsylvania Supreme
Court held that it was “extremely prejudicial for a prosecutor to exhort a jury” in
this fashion.108 And across his death penalty trials, King was two times more likely
to strike potential Black jurors compared to other potential jurors who were not
Black.109

99	

Dianna Marder, Street Enters Race Fray With D.A., Philly.com (Oct. 3, 1996), http://articles.philly.com/1996-10-03/news/25664094_1_
criminal-justice-system-blacks-abraham.

100	

Id.

101	

Id. This is despite the fact that studies of self-reported crime for serious adolescent offenders in Philadelphia demonstrated that Black
and white youth commit crimes at similar rates. See Alex R. Piquero and Robert W. Brame, Assessing The Race—Crime and Ethnicity—
Crime Relationship In A Sample Of Serious Adolescent Delinquents, 54 Crime Delinq. 390 (2008), available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
pmc/articles/PMC2782848/.

102	

Dwight Ott, Retired, But Memories Stay, For 35 Years, Roger King Relentlessly Prosecuted Murder Cases, Philly.com (June 7, 2008), http://
articles.philly.com/2008-06-07/news/25249127_1_prosecutor-murder-charge-murder-cases.

103	

See Joseph R. Daughen, He’s ‘Simply The Best’, Philly.com (Mar. 6, 1995), http://articles.philly.com/1995-03-06/news/25701152_1_
death-sentences-death-row-robbery-murder.

104	Carbin, supra note 90.
105	

Id.

106	

Com. v. Hughes, 865 A.2d 761, 804 (Pa. 2004)

107	

Com. v. Crawley, 526 A.2d 334, 344 (Pa. 1987).

108	

Id.

109	

Com v. Reid, 99 A.3d 470 (2014).

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

15

#5

NAME
COUNTY
# OF DEATH
SENTENCES
YEARS IN
OFFICE
EXONERATIONS

JOHNNY HOLMES
HARRIS COUNTY, TX
201
1979-2000
(21 YEARS)
1

“If you murder someone here, the state of Texas is going to kill you,”110 then-Harris
County District Attorney Johnny Holmes said. He meant what he said. Under
Holmes’s leadership, the Harris County District Attorney’s office sent 201 people to
death row, and Harris County subsequently became known as the “buckle” of the
“death belt” and the “Death Penalty Capital of the World.”111 Indeed, Holmes’ office
“secured an average 12 capital sentences a year in the decade before his retirement
in 2000.”112 Since 2008, by contrast, Harris County juries sent an average of one
person to death row each year.113
Like Lynne Abraham, Johnny Holmes did not prosecute many death cases himself.
Instead, he relied primarily on two of his deputy district attorneys: Lyn McClellan,
who estimates he sent approximately 30 people to death row,”114 and Kelly Siegler,
nicknamed the “Giant Killer” for putting 19 people on death row.115
Over Lyn McClellan’s 27-year tenure at the Harris County DA’s office, he obtained
a remarkable number of capital sentences.116 From the time McClellan was in law
school, he bought into Holmes’ death-oriented version of justice. He decided to
become a prosecutor because he wanted to see Max Soffar executed for the murder
he was convinced that Soffar had committed.117 McClellan finally had his chance

110	

Audrey Duff, The Deadly DA, Tex. Monthly, Feb. 1, 1994, available at https://business.highbeam.com/410545/article-1G1-14790976/
deadly-da.

111	

Simone Seiver, Why Three Counties That Loved the Death Penalty Have Almost Stopped Pursuing It, The Marshall Project (Aug. 11, 2015),
https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/08/11/why-three-counties-that-loved-the-death-penalty-have-almost-stopped-pursuingit#.xNroshNVN.

112	

Id.

113	

Id.

114	

Tommy Witherspoon, McLennan County Prosecutor Likely Holds Active Death Row Record, Waco Trib., May 24, 2014, http://www.
wacotrib.com/news/courts_and_trials/mclennan-county-prosecutor-likely-holds-active-death-row-record/article_548a4b86-47425f0a-aa35-bce4a41ad89a.html.

115	

Biography for Kelly Siegler, “Cold Justice”, TNTdrama.com, http://mobile19.tntdrama.com/series/cold-justice/ (last visited May 31,
2016).

116	

McClellan claimed to have secured around 30 death sentences. See supra note 114 and accompanying text.

117	

See Brian Rogers, Longtime Prosecutor McClellan Praised For His Service, Houston Chron., Nov. 27, 2008, http://www.chron.com/news/

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

16

to prosecute Soffar after Soffar’s original murder conviction was overturned in
2004.118 McClellan did not care that the original conviction was reversed because it
was based on a “thin case consisting only of an uncorroborated confession,”119 that
a serial killer named Paul Reid was likely the true culprit,120 or that Soffar suffered
from intellectual disability and brain damage.121 He charged forward despite the
weakness of his case and sought the death penalty anew.122 Just as the Fifth Circuit
was poised to review the case again, Soffar died of cancer while in prison.123 Soffar
insisted on his innocence until his death.
While Lyn McClellan mostly managed to stay out of the limelight while racking up
death sentences, his colleague Kelly Siegler became famous for her big personality
and notorious willingness to break the rules. Last year, a state court judge reversed
a murder conviction after finding that Kelly Siegler committed 36 instances of
misconduct, including “failure to disclose or timely disclose favorable evidence.”124
According to the court, “[h]ad that evidence been disclosed or disclosed timely,
the results of the trial would have been different.”125 In another murder case,
Siegler failed to reveal to defense lawyers the fact “that crime scene investigators
found fingerprints that were not [the defendant’s] on the victim’s car door and
front fender.”126 In a third murder trial, Siegler “had the bloodstained bed from the
[defendant’s] bedroom brought into the courtroom,” then dramatically “straddled
her colleague, raised one of the actual knives that the defendant was alleged to
have used to kill her husband, and reenacted the stabbings.”127 In a fourth case, one
involving a juvenile defendant, Siegler told the jury to sentence the teenager to
death because “he ain’t a boy and he ain’t a child...he’s been a grown man for a lot
longer than some of you were.”128 In a fifth case, Siegler excluded a Black juror while

houston-texas/article/Longtime-prosecutor-McClellan-praised-for-his-1776508.php.
118	

See id.

119	

Soffar v. Dretke, 368 F.3d 441, 479 (5th Cir. 2004).

120	

See id; Maurice Chammah, ’80 Murder Confession Prompts Call to Require Police to Record Interrogations, N.Y. Times, Dec. 27, 2012,
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/28/us/murder-confession-prompts-calls-in-texas-for-recording-interrogations.html.

121	

State of Texas v. Max Soffar, ACLU (Feb. 23, 2015), https://www.aclu.org/cases/state-texas-v-max-soffar.

122	

See Rogers, Longtime Prosecutor, supra note 117.

123	

See Allan Turner, Twice-Convicted Houston Killer Max Soffar, Suffering Cancer, Dies In Prison, Houston Chron., Apr. 25, 2016, http://www.
chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Twice-convicted-Houston-killer-Max-Soffar-7307734.php.

124	

Brian Rogers, Judge Cites Prosecutorial Misconduct In Temple Case, Houston Chron., Jul. 8, 2015, http://www.expressnews.com/news/
local/article/Judge-cites-prosecutorial-misconduct-in-Temple-6374157.php.

125	

Ex parte Temple, No. 1008763-A, (178th Crim. D. Ct. of Harris Cnty., Tex., July 6, 2015), https://assets.documentcloud.org/
documents/2159552/judge-cites-prosecutorial-misconduct-in-temple.pdf.

126	

Jonathan Turley, Cold Injustice? TNT Star Kelly Siegler Accused Of A Pattern Of Prosecutorial Misconduct, JonathanTurley.org (Jul.
22, 2015), https://jonathanturley.org/2015/07/22/cold-injustice-tnt-star-kelly-siegler-accused-of-a-pattern-of-prosecutorialmisconduct/.

127	

Skip Hollandsworth, 193, Tex. Monthly, Feb. 2010, http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/193/.

128	

Elizabeth F. Emens, Aggravating Youth: Roper v. Simmons and Age Discrimination, 2005 Sup. Ct. Rev. 51, 84 (2005), available at http://
papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1128362 (citing closing argument trans. at 28, Lopez v. State, No. 72,536 (Tex. Crim.
App. 2002) (quoting the prosecutor, Kelly Siegler, of Harris County)).

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

17

claiming that members of the juror’s church are “screwballs” and “nuts,” even though
the prospective juror belonged to the nondenominational Christian church with
the largest congregation in the United States.129 And these examples only reflect a
small sample of Siegler’s behavior during death penalty prosecutions. It appears that
Holmes never disciplined Siegler for misconduct.

Together, Britt, Macy, and Myers personally obtained 131 death sentences,130 a
number greater than the total death row populations of fifteen states combined.131
When death sentences obtained under the leadership of Lynne Abraham and
Johnny Holmes are included, that total comes to 440.132 If you compare that total
to the current number of prisoners on death row in the entire country, which
was determined to be 2,943 as of January 1, 2016,133 it is clear that these five
prosecutors have had an outsized impact on the death penalty. Their total number
of death verdicts is equal to roughly 15% of the current death row population
nationwide, or approximately one out of every seven individuals on death row.134
Over the past fifteen years, even as death sentences have declined nationally, a
small group of individuals continue to drive up the total number of death sentences
nationwide, which has contributed to a misperception that the death penalty is a
common practice, when in reality, most of America’s prosecutors have abandoned it.

129	

See Lisa Falkenberg, DA Hopeful Should Lead By Example, Houston Chron., Jan. 29, 2008, http://www.chron.com/news/falkenberg/
article/DA-hopeful-should-lead-by-example-1627042.php.

130	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet, supra note 10.

131	

These states are New Hampshire; Wyoming; New Mexico; Montana; South Dakota; Colorado; Virginia; Washington; Utah; Idaho;
Kansas; Nebraska; Indiana; Delaware; and Missouri. See Death Row Inmates by State, Death Penalty Info. Ctr., http://www.
deathpenaltyinfo.org/death-row-inmates-state-and-size-death-row-year?scid=9&did=188#state (last updated Jan. 1, 2016).

132	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet, supra note 10.

133	

Death Row U.S.A., supra note 44, at 1.

134	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet, supra note 10.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

18

THE RUNNERS-UP
Our efforts to identify the top five deadliest prosecutors in America turned up
a small handful of prosecutors who failed to meet the threshold for the worst of
the worst, but who broke records in their own states or counties, and racked up
notoriously long records of misconduct. We have dubbed them “The Runners-Up” for
their overzealous and sometimes infamous pursuit of the death penalty.

#6

ABE LAESER, MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, FLORIDA

Abe Laeser, who retired in 2009 as a prosecutor in Miami-Dade County, Florida,
narrowly missed the top five list. Laeser obtained at least 30 death sentences, more
than any other Florida prosecutor.135 He illegally withheld evidence from defense
lawyers in two capital trials;136 put a man on death row who suffered from paranoid
delusions and organic brain damage;137 and secured a death sentence for a mentally
disabled, non-triggerman who suffered from “child abuse, incest and neglect.”138
He also once seriously considered prosecuting a five-year-old child for murder.139
In a widely reported incident, he unzipped his fly in front of a defense attorney and
female jury consultant.140 Abe Laeser, like Britt, Macy and Myers, embodied the winat-all-costs, personality-driven death penalty.

135	

See Susannah A. Nesmith, Longtime Prosecutor Abe Laeser Retires From Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, Miami Herald, Apr. 30, 2009,
http://www.susannahnesmith.com/clips/Laeser.pdf.

136	

See Smith v. State, 7 So.3d 473, 504 (Fl. 2009); Rodriguez v. State, 39 So. 3d 275, 287 (Fl. 2010).

137	

See Connor v. State, 979 So.2d 852, 865 (Fl. 2007).

138	

See Madeline Diaz, Attorney Asks Jury To Spare Caraballo, Sun Sentinel, Apr. 17, 2007, http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2007-04-17/
news/0704160281_1_victor-caraballo-death-penalty-ana-maria-angel; David Ovalle, Death Sentence For Defendant In Ana Maria
Angel Murder Is Overturned, Sun Sentinel Jun. 27, 2010, http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2010-06-24/news/fl-angel-death-sentencetossed-20100624_1_penalty-phase-death-penalty-death-sentence.

139	

State Undecided On Whether To Whether To Charge 5-Year-Old, Lakeland Ledger, Mar. 15, 1986, 8B.

140	

Luisa Yanez, Trial’s Prosecutor Demoted Assistant State Attorney For Gesture, Sun Sentinel, Apr. 27, 1990, http://articles.sun-sentinel.
com/1990-04-27/news/9001050125_1_trial-consultant-laeser-defense-team.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

19

#7

KENNETH PEASLEY, PIMA COUNTY, ARIZONA

Kenneth Peasley, dubbed a “death-penalty machine”141 and “the most feared
prosecutor in Arizona’s Pima County,”142 was personally responsible for at least 10
death sentences.143 He often “bragged about having sent more men to death row
in Arizona than any other prosecutor.”144 He prosecuted multiple men for murder
who were later exonerated.145 Until his death, Peasley was the only American
prosecutor to be “disbarred for intentionally presenting false evidence in deathpenalty cases.”146 He also sent at least one child to death row,147 and secured a
death sentence against an individual who was so mentally ill that he could not have
been declared competent to be executed without being aggressively treated—a job
that Arizona doctors refused to take on.148

#8
#9

NELS MOSS, CITY OF ST. LOUIS AND CHARLES COUNTY,
MISSOURI
AND

DEAN WALDEMER, ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MISSOURI

Missouri has only had four new death sentences since 2010.149 Yet Missouri is
responsible for over 25% of the nation’s executions in the last two years.150 Both of
those facts owe, in part, to the retirement of two prosecutors.

141	

Michael Kiefer, Prosecutorial Misconduct Alleged In Half Of Capital Cases, Ariz. Repub., Oct. 28, 2013, http://www.azcentral.com/news/
arizona/articles/20131027milke-krone-prosecutors-conduct-day1.html.

142	

Jeffrey Toobin, Killer Instinct, New Yorker (2005), http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/01/17/killer-instincts.

143	

Id. (explaining that “Peasley...is personally responsible for a tenth of the prisoners on Arizona’s death row”). In 2007, there were 112
death row inmates in Arizona, three years after Peasley was disbarred. It is highly likely Peasley sent at least ten people to death row, if
not more. See Ryn Gargulinski, Waiting Hardest Part For Inmates, Families Of Victims, Tucson Citizen, May 19, 2007, http://tucsoncitizen.
com/morgue/2007/05/19/52098-waiting-hardest-part-for-inmates-families-of-victims/.

144	

A. J. Flick, Ken Peasley, Disbarred Prosecutor, Dead At 64, Tucson Sentinel (Sep. 8, 2011), http://www.tucsonsentinel.com/local/
report/090811_peasley_obit/ken-peasley-disbarred-prosecutor-dead-64/.

145	

See, e.g., Toobin, supra note 142 (discussing convictions and exonerations of Chris McCrimmon and Andre Minnit); Maurice Possley,
Victims Of The Prosecution, Salon (Apr. 27, 2012), http://www.salon.com/2012/04/27/victims_of_the_prosecution/ (explaining
exoneration of Khalil Rushdan).

146	

See Toobin, supra note 142.

147	

Martin Soto-Fong was seventeen years old at the time of the murders for which he was prosecuted. Fong v. Ryan, CV 04-68-TUCDCB, 2011 WL 3439237, at *1 (D. Ariz. Aug. 5, 2011).

148	

See Giovanna Dell’Orto, Should Convicted Killer Be Made Fit To Die?, Tuscon Citizen, May 10, 2001, http://tucsoncitizen.com/
morgue2/2001/05/10/110782-should-convicted-killer-be-made-fit-to-die/. No doctor in Arizona would prepare Claude Marutana
for execution, so prison officials outsourced a psychiatrist from Georgia. See Alfred M. Freedman, MD, Commentary: The Doctor’s
Dilemma: A Conflict of Loyalties, Psychiatric Times, Jan. 1, 2001, http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/commentary-doctorsdilemma-conflict-loyalties.

149	

Death Sentences in the United States From 1977 By State And By Year, Death Penalty Info. Ctr, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/
death-sentences-united-states-1977-2008 (last visited Jun. 2, 2016).

150	

See Death Row U.S.A., supra note 44, at 8 (calculated using table of all U.S. executions, where a total of 63 people were executed in
2014 and 2015 combined, and 16 of those were in Missouri).

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

20

Nels Moss was a prosecutor for the City of St. Louis from 1968 to 1999 and for St.
Charles County from 1999 to 2001. According to news sources, Moss “put about
10 people on death row.”151 He deliberately failed to disclose exculpatory evidence
in a death penalty case where the federal judge described his behavior as “abusive
and boorish.”152 He also committed misconduct in at least 25 additional cases,
eight of which resulted in reversed convictions or mistrials.153 A researcher who
examined allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in over 11,000 state and local
cases nationally called the number of misconduct findings against Moss “extremely
uncommon” and labeled him “almost in a class by himself.”154
Dean Waldemer served as St. Louis County Chief Trial Attorney from 1991 until
2011.155 Between 2005 and 2010, Waldemer secured at least 10 death sentences,
a fact that he proudly proclaimed in his 2011 application to be a circuit judge.156 He
is also the reputed architect of the “Postman Gambit,” which enables prosecutors
to hide racially biased jury selection practices by intentionally excluding postal
workers from juries.157 On its face, this may seem like a race-neutral reason, except
for the fact that a majority of post office employees in St. Louis County are Black.158
In the trial of Herbert Smulls, sentenced to death by an all-white jury and executed
in 2014, Waldemer struck a Black prospective juror saying that he treats postal
workers “with great suspicion,” because they are “very disgruntled, unhappy people
with the system and make every effort to strike back.”159

#10

DALE COX, CADDO PARISH, LOUISIANA

Dale Cox famously said, “I think we need to kill more people” when asked about
the exoneration of Glenn Ford, who was sentenced to death for a crime he
didn’t commit.160 Cox successfully secured death sentences against people with

151	

John Sonderegger, Talk of Charleytown, St. Charles County Post, January 11, 1999, http://fairpunishment.org/wp-content/
uploads/2016/06/11-Jan-1999-Page-163-St.-Louis-Post-Dispatch-at-Newspapers.pdf

152	

Bianca Jagger, The Time Has Come To Say No To Death, Huffington Post (Apr. 28, 2010), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bianca-jagger/
the-time-has-come-to-say_b_478388.html.

153	

Radley Balko, U.S. Counties Killing The Most People Are Good At Getting Death Penalty, Not So Good At Justice, Huffington Post (Nov. 19,
2013), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/19/death-penalty_n_4275323.html.

154	

Jessamyn Blau, Ex-Prosecutor In City Erred In 25 Cases, Study Says, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jun. 26, 2003, at A7.

155	

Application for Twenty-First Circuit Judge by Dean P. Waldemer, Chief Trial Attorney, St. Louis Cnty., Mo., to Mo. Jud. Comm’n. (Sept.
2011), available at https://www.courts.mo.gov/file/21st%20circuit%20Hartenbach%20vacancy%20-%20Waldemer%20application.
pdf.

156	

See id.

157	

See William Powell, How We Kill: The State Of The Death Penalty, St. Louis Mag., Apr. 25, 2014, https://www.stlmag.com/How-We-Kill/.

158	

See id.

159	

Smulls v. Roper 535 F.3d 853, 868-69 (2008).

160	

See Welborn, supra note 2.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

21

intellectual disabilities and severe impairments. He sought death for two 18-yearolds, Lamondre Tucker and Laderrick Campbell, both of whom had low intellectual
functioning.161 An expert concluded that Tucker “thinks like a child” despite his
chronological age.162 Campbell, who has an IQ of 67, appeared to be “delusional”163
when he represented himself during trial.164 Cox also obtained a death sentence
against Rodricus Crawford, a father convicted of killing his infant son.165 Cox
aggressively pursued the prosecution and death sentence despite the medical
examiner’s uncertainty that the death was even a homicide.166 Cox upset a group of
religious leaders when he cited scripture to the jury and suggested that Jesus would
demand death for Crawford.167 Cox retired in 2015.168 Between 2011 and 2015,
Cox alone secured one-third of Louisiana’s death sentences.169

161	

Maurice Chammah, Could These Cases, Including One From Louisiana, End America’s Death Penalty, Times-Picayune, Jan. 13, 2016, http://
www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2016/01/could_these_cases_including_so.html (discussing Tucker); Charles Ogletree, The Death
Penalty’s Last Stand, Slate (Jan. 6, 2016), http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2016/01/data_and_charts_
show_few_states_impose_the_death_penalty.html (discussing Campbell).

162	

State v. Tucker, No.2013-KA-1631, at *26 (La. 2015), available at http://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/15-946opinion-below.pdf.

163	

See Ogletree, supra note 161.

164	

State v. Campbell, 2006-KA-0286, at *17 n.7 (La. 2008), available at http://www.lasc.org/opinions/2008/06KA0286.opn.pdf.

165	

See Shaun King, Rodricus Crawford Is On Death Row. Read This And 0% Of You Will Think He Should Be, Daily Kos (Jul. 13, 2015), http://
www.dailykos.com/story/2015/7/13/1401800/-Rodricus-Crawford-is-on-death-row-Read-this-and-0-of-you-will-think-he-shouldbe.

166	

See id.

167	

See Jarvis DeBerry, Clergy Object To Prosecutor’s Pro-Death Penalty Jesus, Times-Picayune, Oct. 23, 2015, http://www.nola.com/politics/
index.ssf/2015/10/caddo_da_death_penalty.html.

168	

Acting Caddo DA Dale Cox Leaves Race Following National Cricitism, KTBS (Jul. 14, 2015), http://www.ktbs.com/story/29549496/actingcaddo-da-dale-cox-leaves-race-following-national-criticism.

169	

See Campbell Robertson, The Prosecutor Who Says La. Should ‘Kill More People’, N.Y. Times, Jul. 7, 2015, http://www.nytimes.
com/2015/07/08/us/louisiana-prosecutor-becomes-blunt-spokesman-for-death-penalty.html?_r=1.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

22

THREE
TO WATCH
Could These Three Be America’s Next
Generation of Deadly Prosecutors?
There are three current prosecutors who could become part of America’s next
generation of deadly prosecutors if they continue to pursue death sentences at
their current rate throughout the rest of their careers.

#1

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA, DUVAL COUNTY, FLORIDA

Since 2010, death sentence rates in Florida have plummeted, yet Bernie de la
Rionda of Duval County, Florida, has “put more people on death row than just
about any other prosecutor in Florida.”170 It has been reported that he obtained
death sentences in 22 cases.171 Frustrated by delays in executions, de la Rionda
stated that we should “bring firing squads back, as bullets are pretty cheap, and
they’re very quick.”172 The Florida Supreme Court has reversed de la Rionda in
two cases after deeming death a disproportionately severe punishment for those
particular defendants.173 De la Rionda has the dubious distinction of obtaining
death sentences against a number of defendants with significant impairments,
including: a drug-addicted man who was severely abused and neglected as a
child and suffers from significant neurological impairments;174 a man with a 76 IQ
and “mild to moderate impairment of his frontal lobe function”;175 and a severely
depressed man with suicidal ideations whom the judge found to be “under the
influence of extreme mental or emotional duress.”176

170	

Larry Hannan, Fla.’s Death Penalty Proce. Declared Unconst. By U.S. Sup. Ct., Fla. Times-Union, Jan. 12, 2016, http://jacksonville.com/
news/crime/2016-01-12/story/floridas-death-penalty-procedures-declared-unconstitutional-us-supreme.

171	

2010 Director’s Community Leadership Awards, Bernie de la Rionda, FBI (2010), https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/partnerships_and_
outreach/community_outreach/dcla/2010/jacksonville.

172	

Andrew Pantazi, Prosecutor, Activist Argue Over Death Penalty At Tiger Bay Club Forum, Fla. Times-Union, Sept. 18, 2015, http://
jacksonville.com/news/crime/2015-09-18/story/prosecutor-activist-argue-over-death-penalty-tiger-bay-club-forum.

173	

See Yacob v. State, 136 So. 3d 539, 550 (Fla. 2014) (determining that the aggravating factor, a robbery, was only incidental to
the murder and thus not sufficient to justify the death penalty); Scott v. State, 66 So. 3d 923, 936-37 (2011) (finding that battery
concurrent with the murder did not warrant the imposition of the death penalty).

174	

See Asay v. Sec’y, Fla. Dep’t of Corr., 3:05-CV-147-J-32PDB, 2014 WL 1463990, at *23-22 (M.D. Fla. Apr. 14, 2014).

175	

McMillian v. State, 94 So. 3d 572, 578 (Fla. 2012).

176	

Bright v. State, 90 So.3d 249, 257 (Fla. 2012).

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

23

#2

JEANNETTE GALLAGHER, MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA

The same linkage between the aberrant personalities of yesterday and today exists
in Arizona. If anyone overtakes Kenneth Peasley’s death sentence record, it is
likely to be Jeanette Gallagher. Gallagher, the current head of Maricopa County’s
capital case unit, has obtained at least 9 death sentences, which appears to be
more than any other active prosecutor in Arizona in the last decade.177 She has
secured death sentences against people with severe impairments, including a
military veteran diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.178 Gallagher also obtained
a death sentence for a 19-year-old who had tried to commit suicide the day
before he committed murder and who had attempted to seek treatment for his
severe depression only to be turned away.179 The Arizona Supreme Court rebuked
Gallagher for prosecutorial misconduct in at least three death penalty cases, calling
her behavior “improper,”180 “very troubling,”181 and “entirely unprofessional.”182

#3

PAUL EBERT, PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, VIRGINIA

Virginia, like Missouri, is no longer an active death sentencing state.183 However,
Virginia has had more executions in modern history than every state except
Texas and Oklahoma.184 The recently re-elected the District Attorney of Prince
William County,185 Paul Ebert, has personally obtained at least 14 death sentences,
more than any prosecutor in Virginia.186 As of 2012, nine of those men had been
executed.187 Ebert has admitted that his office withholds evidence of innocence
as an office policy, in order to prevent defense attorneys from using it to benefit
their clients.188 This policy has likely contributed to the sentencing, and possibly the

177	

See America’s Deadliest Prosecutors Spreadsheet, supra note 10.

178	

State v. Fitzgerald, 303 P.3d 519, 527 (Ariz. 2013).

179	

State v. Womble, 235 P.3d 244, 257 (Ariz. 2010).

180	

State v. Velazquez, 166 P.3d 91, 102 (Ariz. 2007).

181	

State v. Martinez, 282 P.3d 409, 416 (Ariz. 2012).

182	

State v. Speer, 212 P.3d 787, 796 (Ariz. 2009).

183	

The Death Penalty in 2015: Year End Report, Death Penalty Info. Ctr. 4 (2015), available at http://deathpenaltyinfo.org/
documents/2015YrEnd.pdf.

184	

Number of Executions by State and Region Since 1976, Death Penalty Info. Ctr., http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/number-executionsstate-and-region-1976 (last visited June 2, 2016).

185	

See Fenit Nirappil, Prince William Board Chairman and Longtime Cnty. Prosecutor Reelected, Wash. Post, Nov. 4, 2015, https://
www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/veteran-prosecutor-ebert-neck-and-neck-with-challenger-in-prwilliam/2015/11/03/06f7870e-7e5c-11e5-b575-d8dcfedb4ea1_story.html.

186	

See Josh White, Man Who Killed Prince William Couple in 2001 is Executed, Wash. Post, Nov. 18, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.
com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/17/AR2009111702515.html; Ebert Gives it Another Go in Race for Commonwealth’s Attorney,
Culpepper Times, [DATE], http://www.northernvatimes.com/culpeper/article/ebert-gives-it-another-go-in-race-for-commonwealthsattorney.

187	

See Dieter, supra note 6, app. at 27.

188	

See Wolfe v. Clarke, 819 F. Supp.2d 538, 566 n.24 (E.D. Va. 2011) (quoting Ebert’s explanation at the defendant’s habeas evidentiary
hearing: “when you have information that is given to certain counsel and certain defendants, they are able to fabricate a defense around
what has been provided”); see also Dahlia Lithwick, Why is Justin Wolfe Still In Prison?, Slate (Nov. 13, 2014), http://www.slate.com/

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

24

execution, of multiple innocent people. The parents of a murder victim insisted that
the man Ebert prosecuted, Larry Elliott, was innocent, and claimed that Ebert lied at
trial about evidence that they provided to him which pointed to another suspect.189
Elliott was executed in 2009, despite lingering doubts about his innocence and
allegations that Ebert hid exculpatory evidence.190 Before the courts overturned the
conviction of another defendant, Justin Wolfe, Ebert hid evidence that detectives
threatened the admitted triggerman with the death penalty unless he testified
against Wolfe.191 A judge described the behavior of Ebert and his team as “abhorrent
to the judicial process.”192

CONCLUSION
There have always been a tiny handful of prosecutors who pursue death sentences
with fervor, and without regard for fairness and accuracy. America’s five deadliest
prosecutors—Joe Freeman Britt, Bob Macy, Donnie Myers, Lynne Abraham and
Johnny Holmes—epitomize this over-aggressive and reckless style of prosecution.
But this personality-driven feature of the death penalty is visible in other states
too, including among prosecutors who continue to seek the death penalty today.
These prosecutors are evidence that the application of the death penalty is—and
always has been—less about the circumstances of the offense or the characteristics
of the person who committed the crime, and more a function of the personality
and predilections of the local prosecutors entrusted with the power to seek the
ultimate punishment. Their overzealous pursuit of the death penalty does not
accurately reflect America’s growing skepticism of the death penalty, nor is it
representative of local constituencies that are more attached to the death penalty.
It better reflects the lack of meaningful controls on prosecutorial discretion and a
lack of consequences for their illegal or unethical behavior. In fact, death sentencing
trends in these counties before and after these individuals served as prosecutors
demonstrate that these individuals drove these counties to become extreme
outliers in their use of the death penalty, and that these counties saw dramatic
reductions in capital verdicts as soon as these individual actors were out of the
picture. This overzealous, personality-driven, win-at-all-costs pursuit of capital

articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2014/11/justin_wolfe_case_his_murder_conviction_was_vacated_three_years_ago_so_why.
html.
189	

See Clemency Petition on behalf of Larry Bill Elliot, pt. 2, apps. 4-5 (2009), available at https://library.albany.edu/speccoll/findaids/
apap214/elliott_bill_appendices1_50.pdf.

190	

See Josh White, Man Who Killed Prince William Couple In 2001 Is Executed, Wash. Post, Nov. 18, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.
com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/17/AR2009111702515.html.

191	

See Wolfe, 819 F. Supp.2d at 548 n.9, 554; Lithwick, supra note 188.

192	

Wolfe, 819 F. Supp.2d at 566 n.24.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

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punishment seriously undermines the legitimacy of the death penalty today.

RESEARCH PROCESS
Our research process consisted of consulting the legal database Westlaw for court
opinions, legal briefs, and motions; newspaper archives; and federal and local public
defender offices, which allowed us to come up with an initial list of district attorneys
who had secured a large number of death sentences in the modern death penalty
era. We cross-checked this information with a list of all defendants sentenced
to death in the relevant jurisdictions. Where we found incomplete information
or discrepancies, we consulted with a second, and sometimes a third, source to
verify the information. All of the numbers and figures are accurate to the best of
our knowledge, and the resources relied upon are available via the citations in the
report, and in the database we created for this purpose, which is on file with the
Fair Punishment Project and available upon request.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
We would like to thank the NC Office of the Capital Defender; NC Indigent Defense
Services; the Oklahoma County Public Defender; Clark County, Indiana, Prosecutor
Jeremy Mull and ex-Clark County Prosecutor Steve Stewart; Justice 360; and Rory
Fleming, Stacey Kennard, Liz Eisenberg, Dawn Milam, and Amy Weber for their
research assistance.

ABOUT THE FAIR PUNISHMENT PROJECT
The Fair Punishment Project uses legal research and educational initiatives to
ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable. As a joint initiative of
Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and
its Criminal Justice Institute, we work to highlight the gross injustices resulting
from prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias, and to
illuminate the laws that result in excessive punishment. For more information visit:
www.fairpunishment.org.

America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors

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