by Joan M. Bundy, Member of the Board of Directors, DPAA
On November 12, 2013 (11-12-13, rather interestingly), I had the distinct privilege and honor of attending the American Bar Association’s National Symposium on the Modern Death Penalty in America in Atlanta, GA, at which former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was the keynote speaker.
Despite his rather advanced age (89) and the fact that both his parents and all three of his siblings have died of pancreatic cancer, he is still very much alive and active on the global scene pushing for peace, human rights and social justice, including abolishment of the death penalty worldwide. He appeared extremely hale, walking without any assistance despite a slightly hunched back, speaking as strongly and confidently as ever, and with an intellect as sharp as a tack.
One might daresay he is busier and more productive now than when he was in the White House. He brought peals of laughter when he mentioned a cartoon he saw recently of a little boy saying, “Mommy! I want to be an ex-president when I grow up!” He did seem to be the embodiment of the elder statesman. He is the only U.S. President to receive the Nobel Peace Prize after leaving office (in 2002). He is also the only U.S. President to bring Israel and Egypt together for peace talks.
During his speech he touched on several diplomacy efforts he and his wife, Mrs. Rosalynn (pronounced “ROSE-uh-lin”) Carter, have engaged in of late, including visiting Syria to try to bring about peace (or at least a truce) in that civil war-torn country and an upcoming trip to Nepal to monitor elections there for a 95th time!
Then he launched into a discussion of the death penalty in the United States, stating: “Another element of war is that we still have the death penalty in the United States.” I had never thought of it quite that way, but what a profound statement. And so true! It is as if we are at war with our own citizens, in that we kill them if they supposedly commit one or more of our “worst of the worst” crimes, are prosecuted capitally and end up on “death row” in a federal pen or a state prison in one of the 32 U.S. states that still have capital punishment on their books.
He said it’s embarrassing the kind of bad company the United States keeps when it comes to the death penalty. We share the practice with some of the worst human-rights offenders in the world, including China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The United States is the only remaining country in the “first world”/“Western world,” NATO or the Western Hemisphere that still executes its own people (he mentioned Suriname, in South America, which still has it on its books but hasn’t carried one out in more than a decade). By comparison, the only country in Europe that currently uses the death penalty is Belarus (part of the former Soviet Union).
He lamented the amount of violence in the United States when compared with other “first world” or “Western civilizations” and noted that there seems to be more violence and murder in jurisdictions that execute their citizens than those who don’t, even when looking at adjacent states. Moreover, our neighbor to the north—Canada—whose last execution was in 1962, had only about 500 murders last year compared to the United States’ 15,000. It also has a third less gun ownership, and Carter stated that tighter gun control is desperately needed in the United States to stem the tide of violence here.
He decried the increased use of the death penalty in the United States since its reinstatement in 1977, pointing out that during his presidency only three occurred (one in 1977 and two in 1979). Although down from the high of 98 in 1999, 43 occurred in 2012. He mourned Texas’ dubious distinction of executing more people than any other jurisdiction, in fact more than a third of the 1,354 people killed post-1976 in the United States (at last count the Lone Star State had executed 507 per the Death Penalty Information Center, www.deathpenaltyinfo.org).
Carter also complained about the high monetary costs of capital punishment; for example, the state of California has spent about $4 billion to execute 13 people post-1976. It also has the largest number of death-row inmates (at last count 731). He also referenced the tragedy of unfair application of the death penalty to the poor and minorities. Essentially, those who end up on death row are those against whom the deck was already stacked and who couldn’t afford good legal representation.
Something that I hadn’t thought about too much before, even though I’ve been involved in the abolition movement for 13 years and interned at the Arizona Capital Representation Project in law school, is that the two landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases that temporarily halted and then revived the death penalty in the 1970s both hailed from Georgia: Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), and Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. (1976). President Carter said when he approved the legislative changes to the death penalty in Georgia while he was governor (1971 to 1975), he truly believed they were going to make it applied in a fairer, more rationally based manner and now knows that it likely made it no better than it was pre-1972.
One thing that really surprised me was not only did he say that he has long been opposed to the death penalty personally and that The Carter Center, where the event was held, has “taken a firm stance” against it since its inception in 1982, but he also recommended that the American Bar Association take a stand and state that the death penalty should be abolished and not just that it continue to be “examined” for fairness of application, because it’s impossible to get it right 100 percent of the time, and getting it wrong even once—and executing an innocent person—is simply not acceptable.
He mentioned that both he and Rosalynn have called and written letters to legislators, state governors and heads of state in other countries urging them to abolish the death penalty and/or commute sentences/grant clemency in specific cases and are more than willing to continue doing so. He also encouraged the attendees to do the same and write letters to the media and speak on panels to increase public awareness and understanding of the issues involved.
He also recommended pushing for a moratorium rather than outright abolishment of the death penalty in a particular jurisdiction, because it is easier to get support for the former and it still results in few death sentences being handed out, and ultimately the death penalty is usually shortly thereafter abolished in places that have previously put a moratorium in place (like Illinois).
He also said he believes the United States Supreme Court is heavily influenced by public opinion on social issues. For example, witness the recent anti-DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) ruling. Similarly, he noted, public opinion is turning toward abolishing the death penalty in America. Polls indicate that the plurality of Americans (39 percent) say they prefer life in prison without the possibility of parole to having a death penalty, and only 33 percent want it kept in place.
In a word, President Carter gave me hope that someday (soon, hopefully) we can see the death penalty eradicated in Arizona and throughout the United States.