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The recent release of Debra Milke. an Arizona woman who spent 23 years on death row for a crime she did not commit, is first and foremost a tragic story of injustice. But it’s something else, too: another arresting example of how the reality of the criminal justice system in the U.S. which has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, falls well short of its supposed intentions. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was appointed by law-and-order drug warrior Ronald Reagan, told Congress earlier this week. the system is, “[i]n many respects … broken.”
Politicians on both sides of the aisle are more willing to discuss making serious changes to American justice than they have been in more than a decade, but one of the most stark and disturbing manifestations of the system’s flaws still often goes unmentioned. We’re thinking, of course, about the death penalty. But if one considers the great attention paid by the media and the public to recent botched executions in Oklahoma and Arizona — as well as Utah’s decision to bring back firing squads — there’s reason to think that, too, may soon change.
Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty executive director Diann Rust-Tierney about her group’s work and the changing politics of capital punishment. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.
If you had to describe the current politics of the death penalty in America, how would you say things have changed from, say, the ’90s?
I would say that the most significant change since the ’90s is that the death penalty is really being looked at and approached for the first time as a real public policy issue. For many years, the death penalty was an idea, an abstract conversation point, and it wasn’t held to the same kinds of standards we hold other policy institutions to. I think one of the things that’s happened most significantly is that policymakers are looking at the death penalty in virtually every state that has it, and they’re beginning to hold it to the same standards to which we hold every other program in our country to — is it effective? Does it work? Is it cost-effective? Is it consistent with our values? When you look at the death penalty and hold it to those standards, it can’t survive. I think that’s what we’re seeing state after state that takes a careful look at the death penalty rejecting it.
It seems like the debate has shifted away from arguing over values and now has more of a focus on metrics — i.e. instead of fighting about whether the death penalty is right or wrong, it’s a fight over whether it works even on its own terms. But are there any dangers to having a conversation about making it work if you fundamentally would rather it not exist at all?
Our organization is not engaged in the business of making the
death penalty work; we believe it’s unworkable and we think 30-plus years of experimenting has shown that it can’t work. There’s the idea that we can have a fair system that sends people to death row and executes them in a way we can all feel comfortable with, but what we’ve seen over and over again is that that’s just not possible.
What we’re trying to do is help the public and policymakers really focus in on the death penalty in practice. The conversation that was talking place before now was really about the death penalty in the abstract but the abstract idea that it’s possible to do this well is not consistent with the reality. The difference now is that we’re confronting the reality of the death penalty. We’re confronting the fact that it is not possible to do it in a way that ensures that we don’t execute innocent people; that it is not possible to do it in a way that ensures that race doesn’t influence the decision. This country is in the midst of a discussion about the impact of race on our criminal justice system and the fact that citizens living in the same community have very different experiences with the criminal justice system based on their race.
That’s not a system that any one of us can believe will produce a result we can stand by. Plus, we have nothing to show for all the effort and pain we’ve put into the death penalty. The states that have the death penalty and use it can’t boast that they have lower homicide rates; in fact, some of them have higher rates. It’s not keeping us safe and it is undermining our other values about racial justice and about making sure that justice isn’t based on how much a person can pay. For us, this is not a conversation about getting it fixed, it’s a conversation about exposing to the public the way in which this institution operates and showing them that it doesn’t operate close to how they would hope or expect.
The issue of mass incarceration in general has become a major topic of debate, nationally. Do you think that broader conversation has something to do with the recent increase in attention paid to death penalty cases and issues?
I do think it’s part of a broader reevaluation but I can’t say that there’s more movement on the death penalty because of the new focus on mass incarceration. It is evidence of an evolution, I think, in our thinking as a country and as a society. The focus on mass incarceration is at its heart about reevaluating how we see people and about reaffirming the value of human beings. Many of the conservatives that are very engaged in the effort to address mass incarceration come to that perspective from a faith-based view that the criminal justice system has to contemplate that rehabilitation is possible and redemption is possible, and that same understanding undergirds a conversation about the death penalty.