Carter: It's Time for U.S. to Abolish the Death Penalty
Former President says capital punishment has evidenced an 'extreme bias' for the poor and minorities
Former president Jimmy Carter called for the United States to abolish the death penalty at an American Bar Association event at the Carter Center on Tuesday, saying the country has become an outlier.
"The United States—a country of which I'm very proud—is not in good company on this issue," Carter said. Of those sentenced to death worldwide, 97 percent are executed by China, Iran, Saudi Arabia—and the United States, he said.
The United States is the only country in the Western Hemisphere and in NATO with the death penalty, he added, noting that 97 countries have abolished it. No European countries other than Belarus allow capital punishment, and banning it is a requirement for EU membership.
The daylong symposium on the future of the death penalty presented the ABA's decadelong analysis of death penalty systems in the 12 states that have carried out 65 percent of U.S. executions since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated it. Georgia is one of them.
Carter said the death penalty was not questioned when he was governor in 1973. His thinking has evolved since then, he said in a discussion with Stephen Bright, the president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and ABA president James Silkenat.
There is an "extreme bias" toward the poor, minorities and those with diminished mental capacity, Carter said. "It's hard to imagine a rich white woman or man going to the death chamber when they are defended by expensive lawyers."
If people understand that, Carter said, they will not support the death penalty. "They will see that it is not fair."
While governor, Carter signed legislation revising Georgia's capital punishment code to comport with the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The 1973 legislation was in response to the Supreme Court's moratorium on capital punishment the year before, when it ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was inconsistently and arbitrarily applied, frequently with a racial bias.
"These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual," wrote Justice Potter Stewart.
The revised Georgia statute passed muster with the Supreme Court in the 1976 case Gregg v. Georgia, which lifted the moratorium.