Road to Redemption Difficult on Death Row

Supporters say Crips co-founder Tookie Williams is a changed man who should not be put to death for his crimes. But few Death Row inmates are granted clemency. Elisabeth Semel, director of the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley, discusses the issue with Renee Montagne.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Tookie Williams' battle to escape execution tomorrow is doing more than making headlines here and overseas. It has also cast a light on what has become a seldom-used argument for clemency: redemption. Elisabeth Semel is the director of the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley.

Professor ELISABETH SEMEL (Death Penalty Clinic, University of California at Berkeley): The argument that an individual's life should be spared based on rehabilitation or redemption is not a new argument. It has been used many times historically. Take a look, for example, at the 1950s and 1960s in the state of California and really across the nation. In about 20 to 25 percent of the death row cases, governors were granting clemency, and that indicated that clemency was a much more common phenomena, and the reasons for granting clemency were much broader and varied than what has happened since the death penalty was reinstated by the United States Supreme Court in 1976.

MONTAGNE: What about, then, after 1976? What changed? Society or the politics of the death penalty?

Prof. SEMEL: I think very much the politics of the death penalty. The reinstatement of the death penalty coincided with an increase in the crime rate, particularly in the '80s and the early '90s, and we saw, at least in terms of perception, the notion that the death penalty was more popular publicly than it had been in earlier decades. We saw a precipitous drop in clemency grants by governors from--down from the 20 percentile to 5 percent, and the idea of redemption became less palatable, less politically acceptable.

Interestingly enough, however, at the same time, and particularly in the '90s and now into this century, doubts about the reliability of the death penalty, the fairness of the death penalty have been raised again, and we are facing a political climate where I think it is fair to say there's more concern and apprehension about the fairness of the process than there has been certainly in the last decade.

MONTAGNE: But those are fairness issues.

Prof. SEMEL: That's correct. And indeed...

MONTAGNE: It still leaves clemency out there, you know, as a completely separate thing.

Prof. SEMEL: Indeed it does, and unfortunately, the historic notion of clemency as an act of mercy seems to have become more of an extra- or almost superjudicial review by governors, second guessing whether the courts got it right, and therefore, what we have tended to see is grants of clemency based on questions of fairness--mental retardation, the youth of the individual, and in particular doubts about the role of the individual in the offense or whether or not he actually was responsible for the crime.

MONTAGNE: So in recent years, how often has redemption come up as an argument? The one example I thought of was the case of Karla Faye Tucker, who was a Texas woman who was actually executed about seven years ago, but only after supporters, including Pat Robertson, had argued for clemency because she had become a born-again Christian.

Prof. SEMEL: That's correct, and indeed it has come up. It has been raised numerous times on behalf of the individuals facing execution. Karla Faye Tucker's case is one of the more prominent examples. But even in the case of Donald Beardsley, the last execution we had in California, the argument of rehabilitation was raised. He had been what everyone would describe as a model prisoner on death row. So the argument's been raised. It has not been successfully raised, I would say, in all but one or two cases and, of course, Mr. Williams is an example of someone whose profile, I think it's fair to say, of rehabilitation, what he has done in a very visible and concrete way, is more perhaps than any other case that--at least in recent memory.

MONTAGNE: Elisabeth Semel is a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

And thanks very much for joining us.

Prof. SEMEL: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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