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After Arkansas Executions, Lawyer Criticizes Use Of Capital Punishment

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After Arkansas Executions, Lawyer Criticizes Use Of Capital Punishment

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After Arkansas Executions, Lawyer Criticizes Use Of Capital Punishment

After Arkansas Executions, Lawyer Criticizes Use Of Capital Punishment

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Bryan Stevenson has spent his entire career defending prisoners on death row. He and and his staff have won cases for 115 men who have been wrongly condemned. NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with Stevenson about the recent executions in Arkansas and why he thinks the death penalty should be abandoned.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A man we're going to hear from next has spent a lot of time on death row - trying to help prisoners leave it. Bryan Stevenson and his staff have won cases for 130 people who have been wrongly condemned. Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

And we're going to talk to him about his view of the death penalty and where it's heading in this country after Arkansas just executed four men in eight days. Bryan Stevenson, welcome to the program.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

SIEGEL: Those executions in Arkansas were the first there in more than a decade. And they came at a time when support for the death penalty in the U.S. is declining. What are your thoughts about those executions having gone ahead?

STEVENSON: I think it just highlights how political the death penalty has always been. I mean, the state of Arkansas didn't carry out these executions because the process had worked to completion with the kind of reliability that we tend to want. They did it because they were concerned about a drug expiring.

And I think that's one of the things that I worry about is that the death penalty was declared unconstitutional because all of these arbitrary factors seemed to be shaping when it was imposed. And these executions reinforce that kind of arbitrariness and raise real questions about what we're doing in this area.

SIEGEL: But is this a case where the argument against the drugs that are used has a perverse result for those who are trying to block executions?

STEVENSON: I think that would be a fair judgment, although the point is is that we assume no one wants to see executions carried out in this country that are inhumane. The last execution of Kenneth Williams, AP reporters have reported that his body lurched violently against the leather straps, that he moved 15 times.

And I think that's the motivation, is that we assume no one wants to see people tortured. And some states have recognized that same goal and have not used this kind of drug combination or have not proceeded with executions when these kinds of questions persist.

SIEGEL: According to the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of Americans support the death penalty for people found guilty of murder. Forty-two percent of Americans are against it. I'm sure that's less support for the death penalty than there was decades ago but it's still support. How do you understand that?

STEVENSON: While 49 percent is a lot, it's dramatically less than where it was 20 years ago. So I think we're in a different space. And I just think the big challenge with America's death penalty has been its unreliability. We've now seen 158 people released from death row after being proved innocent. That means for every nine people we've executed, we've identified one innocent person. That's a pretty shocking rate of error.

SIEGEL: Just to be clear, that's not to say that 1 in 10 death row inmates has been wrongly condemned, but you're saying the ratio of people who have been exonerated to those who have actually been executed is one in 10.

STEVENSON: That's right. And the reason why that's relevant is that we don't know sometimes until the end of the process. I represented a man who spent 30 years on Alabama's death row for a crime he didn't commit. So we can't tell how that number is going to increase by looking at the pool of 3,000 people that are currently on death row. And I just think it raises questions about reliability.

I mean, if somebody told you that 1 out of 10 apples that you eat has poison that would kill you, we would stop eating apples. And we haven't had that same attitude when it comes to unfairness and the death penalty. And that's why for me the question of capital punishment in this country isn't do people deserve to die for the crimes they've committed. The threshold question is, do we deserve to kill?

SIEGEL: What do you say to Americans who say that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston marathon bomber, deserves to be executed? Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal office building in Oklahoma city, deserved to be executed. And for cases of that sort, they would support the death penalty. How do you argue against that?

STEVENSON: I mean, I think that we don't punish people because we're mad, because we're afraid. We have to punish people because we believe in justice. And that means having a system that is reliable and fair. It's not clear to me. Each one of those cases, the McVeigh case, his codefendant was not sentenced to death. And the jurors who heard the evidence about his background and the mitigation that was presented decided despite the horror of that crime that the death penalty was not appropriate.

And you could imagine the same kind of outcome even in the Tsarnaev case. The man - the only person convicted for the 9/11 bombings, the jury decided the death penalty was not appropriate.

And so I don't think we have to have a death penalty to have a just system. And I think that ought to be motivating our thinking about this more than anything else.

SIEGEL: Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and also the author of "Just Mercy." Mr. Stevenson, thanks for talking with us.

STEVENSON: Happy to be with you.

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