In Arizona's Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, capital cases were so numerous that in 2007 the state's Supreme Court Chief Justice convened a task force to look at ways "to address the unprecedented number of capital cases awaiting trial" in the county.
Cuyahoga County brings so many death penalty cases that, in a twist on tough-on-crime politics, candidates running for prosecutor promised to vastly reduce the number of indictments. Mason is not running for re-election.
Mason's approach runs counter to a 40-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that threw out the country's death penalty laws in part over the arbitrariness of the laws in place at the time, said Ohio state public defender Tim Young.
The risk of someone ending up on death row for a crime that might be a far lesser offense elsewhere "seems like a wildly dangerous use" of the death penalty, Young added.
Just 78 inmates nationally were sentenced to death in 2011, the lowest number since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, and nearly two-thirds lower than the 224 death sentences in 2000.
High numbers of capital charges, and the use of plea bargains in death penalty cases, have been examined in several states by the American Bar Association. The ABA's 2007 review of Ohio's death penalty system also cited Cuyahoga County's high number of indictments.
In Kentucky, the ABA noted that the large number of capital indictments — dozens if not hundreds — compared with death sentences "calls into question as to whether current charging practices ensure the fair, efficient, and effective enforcement of criminal law."
In Tennessee, a 2004 report by the state's Comptroller of the Treasury that examined the law's cost found widespread disparities with how prosecutors used the law, with some treating it as a "bargaining chip" to secure plea bargains. "Meanwhile, defense attorneys must prepare their cases, often without knowing the punishment the prosecutor intends to seek," the report said.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached at http://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.