Roundtable: N.J. Death Penalty, Reporters Killed in Action

Guests discuss New Jersey's proposal to abolish the death penalty; a new call for gays to be openly accepted into the military; and a deadly year for journalists around the world. Joining the panel are economist and author Julianne Malveaux; political consultant Walter Fields; and Glenn Loury, professor of social sciences and economics at Brown University.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, could New Jersey abolish the death penalty completely? And the military, is it ready for more than a don't-ask, don't-tell policy about gays and lesbians.

Joining us from New York is Walter Fields, political consultant. And Julianne Malveaux, who's president and CEO of Last Word Productions, Inc., who joins us from D.C. Glenn Loury, professor of the social sciences and professor of economics at Brown University, is in Providence, Rhode Island.

Welcome everybody, and let's talk first about the death penalty.

New Jersey's Legislative Commission is recommending the state become the first in America to do away completely with the death penalty. Now, they haven't executed an inmate since reinstating capital punishment in 1982, but this announcement comes just days after the controversial hanging of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. That's raised again many questions about whether or not the death penalty is effective, cost effective and humane.

Julianne, what do you think about the issue of abolishing it completely in a state?

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (CEO and President, Last Word Productions, Inc.): I think it should be abolished completely nationally. It is a cruel and unusual punishment. We have seen the possibility of errors, which is why in states like Maryland and Illinois they have suspended the death penalty.

You know, Saddam Hussein not withstanding, I mean I don't think he should have been hanged either. I don't think that we should have a death penalty. In his case, there's a whole - it's a footnote and really just kind of off the chart here. We don't need to talk about it, but the fact is that he wasn't tried for everything he did.

Here in the United States, a preponderant number of folks on death row are African-American. Many of them have been under-represented, not unrepresented, in their trials. And in all too many cases, going back over the case, DNA has found - the Innocence Project obviously found - people are just not guilty and they've been killed for something that they didn't do.

Even when they did do it, throw them in a small room, give them a loaf of bread, a Bible and, you know, a bottle of water. That's better than killing people. You know, an eye for an eye doesn't work, I don't think.

CHIDEYA: Glenn, in this case, we're looking at New Jersey saying OK, instead of the death penalty, we are going to have life imprisonment without parole. And, actually, that could result in cost savings even though you think about oh, well, if you're going to keep people in jail at $30,000 a year for the rest of their life, maybe that will cost more. This succession of appeals in death penalty cases often cost far more than incarcerating someone for life.

Now we're talking about an issue that - it's not a happy endings issue either way. But should the issue of cost factor in? Because New Jersey is saying, you know what, if we save money, we'll try to give money back to the survivors of the victims of homicide.

Professor GLENN LOURY (Social Science and Economics, Brown University): Yes, I saw that. I mean it is ironic that it actually costs more to administer a death penalty than it does, or what would be estimated to cost, to hold someone in prison for life precisely because of the legal entanglements. But it's also a little bit depressing that the issue of cost would be at the forefront of a state's deliberations about what to do on this matter.

I agree with Julianne Malveaux that the death penalty is an abomination. The thing I want to say here, though, is that it's really more about us than it is about them. That is to say, the death penalty is about what kind of people we Americans are, not about what kind of evil, bad, wrongdoers are, the particular criminals who might be put to death.

This is the state sanctioned public taking of a life - two wrongs do not make a right. You know, it's in our politics. There is evidence that in gubernatorial elections years states are more likely to execute people on death row or less likely to grant clemency when the governor is standing for election than when he is not.

It is already been mentioned about the racial disparity in the death penalty, which is really outlandish. Moreover, the process is very much biased against these defendants who don't have the means to be able to get full legal defense and representation. We are an outlier in the international community to the extent that we are engaged in this practice.

Civilized norms are evolving. Whether or not the founders intended that putting people to death be cruel and unusual punishment, it's very clear now in our contemporary time that it is a cruel and unusual way of dealing with crime.

CHIDEYA: Walter, this isn't the first time that the government has really looked at the death penalty. Of course, there have been a situation of moratoriums in Illinois, as I believe Julianne mentioned. But then the Supreme Court itself halted all executions in 1972, and states went back and rewrote their laws in order to reinstate the practice. Do you think that this needs to be addressed on a national level instead of a state-by-state level?

Mr. WALTER FIELDS (CEO and Publisher, NorthStarNetwork.com): It will always be addressed on a state-by-state level. I mean there's a federal death penalty in federal courts. And as the New Jersey native on the panel and current resident, I think I have to remind people that a unique set of circumstances came together in New Jersey for us to reach this point.

New Jersey had a very strict review of death penalty cases that went up to the state Supreme Court. And contrary to some aspects of our state's political culture, the New Jersey Supreme Court has been one of the more progressive state supreme courts in the country. This is a state Supreme Court that heard the Karen Ann Quinlan case on the right to die. There's a case of school funding they were far out in front of in terms of fiscal equity issues, in terms of school financing.

So it just so happens this situation lands in a state where the state Supreme Court has been very progressive on a number of issues and there was a strict review of the death penalty. Also, you know, we now have the right partisan alignment in Trenton that allows for this to happen. But public opinion has shifted tremendously I think in the last 10 years on this issue of the death penalty. And more and more Americans are calling into question whether or not our country as a supposed leader of the free world should also be the leader in putting people to death.

So, I think it's a unique set of circumstances. Science also kicked in with DNA evidence that more people now understand that there is a high likelihood that you could make a mistake and you could take someone's life, because now we have DNA evidence that shows that there are people who are in prison who shouldn't be there.

So there have been a number of factors that have come together that have allowed New Jersey to get to this point. But I think this will always be a matter that's handled in the state, you know, as part of our federalist system. And each state is going to have to deal with this issue, and then we have to deal with the issue of the death penalty at the federal level.

CHIDEYA: Walter, I'm going to stay with you and move to a new topic. It is gays and lesbians in the military. John Shalikashvili was the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman when the Pentagon adopted don't ask, don't tell, that was under President Clinton.

Now he's changed his mind about gays in the military. He met with gay servicemen. He said the conversation revealed how much the military has changed and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers. That's his quote.

And he is really hoping that a lawsuit or a change at the top level will really change things, overall, in the military. Now a man named David Hall was disenrolled from the Air Force for being gay and is fighting for reinstatement. This is what he said to CNN.

(Soundbite of CNN broadcast)

Mr. DAVID HALL: For them to disenroll me for something so stupid, it just didn't make sense. So I want the opportunity to voice my opinion and say, you know what, this is not right and this is not the way that our country should be treating Americans.

CHIDEYA: Walter, a lot of this conversation comes around a time when the U.S. military is thinking about recruiting. How are we going to recruit more men and women in a time of war? Is it time to bring up the issue of gay and lesbian servicemen and women?

Mr. FIELDS: Well, I think it's time to bring up the issue of non-discriminatory practices in the military. I mean it's really interesting. I'm always amused when people, after they are out of power, have this moment of enlightenment. That when you had the authority to do something, you couldn't see it, but once you are removed from power, all of a sudden you're enlightened. You have this enlightened point of view.

This has been one of the most silliest arguments I think we've ever had in this country. We have had homosexuals who have served in the military from time immemorial. I don't think any soldier on the battleground, when the bullets are flying, are going to do sort of a crotch check with their fellow soldiers.

And I think it's the military brass that has had more of a problem with this than the actual, you know, enlisted personnel. So I think it's high time that we got over this issue. We were down this path with women at one point -whether or not women could fight in combat and do the job. I mean that was a silly argument -

CHIDEYA: Whether or not African-Americans.

Mr. FIELDS: Whether or not African-Americans…

Prof. LOURY: Indeed.

Mr. FIELDS: It seems like we always come to this moment of enlightenment. And usually when it comes - an issue of whether or not we have the supply of service people to do the job. It's like when you have a shortage, all of a sudden, oh, well, they're not that bad. We can enlist them and they can fight.

So, I think we're going to see in this moment when we're going to need sort of, an increase not just for Iraq. We have to understand that military ranks have been depleted.

You know, part of this is that we don't have a draft. And I think Congressman Rangel pointed this out, that we have a military that's hanging on a thread right now so we need bodies. And certainly, I don't think we're going to be excluding many people from this point on.

CHIDEYA: I want to jump in and say that this NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. We were just listening to political consultant Walter Fields. We've also got with us Glenn Loury, professor of the social sciences and professor of economics at Brown University, and economist and author Julianne Malveaux, who is president and CEO of Last Word Productions.

Julianne, I'm going to turn to you. Are there parallels between the African-American experience of integrating the military and also this gay and lesbian experience of don't ask, don't tell. I mean a lot of times there is an uneasy set of parallels that are drawn and denied between the black experience and the gay and lesbian experience. What makes this similar and what makes it different?

Ms. MALVEAUX: I always resist those comparisons, Farai. I mean you don't have to ask African-Americans if they're African-American or not. And whether we tell it or not, it's out there. So I do resist the comparisons, except for this: The military has the power to do leadership. And I think when African-Americans were fully integrated into the military it was because leaders decided that that was going to happen. It was because of executive orders that said that the discrimination has got to stop.

Well, people did not like to have African-Americans in the barracks with them, all kinds of things are said. But the issue is, you got to do it, it's an order. And I think that similarly in terms of gays and lesbians in the military, if it's an order that people get along, that they look at the military in the broad sense of what the goals are as opposed to what someone's sexual orientation is, then the military can play a major role.

But don't ask, don't tell is such a silly policy because it really does require a fair amount of waffling all around. I mean often times people know what people's sexual orientation is, so don't ask, don't tell. It requires people to lie in so many ways. It requires people to deny themselves, which they shouldn't have to do.

So, I think that - I again resist the parallels because African-American people don't have the luxury of hiding. There is no closet for African-American people. At the same time, right is right. And we don't need to use the black-gay parallel to say that no one should be discriminated against in the military.

CHIDEYA: Glenn, what's the significance of the military as an organization that can use its authority to integrate groups of people who previously weren't?

Prof. LOURY: Yeah, I think much has been said here is very sensible. It is a leadership institution and organization within the society. The thing that I find interesting here is that, you know, the typical person serving in the military is younger than the typical voter. And them times, they are a changing. I mean the attitudes and sensibilities about sexual practice and the toleration of homosexuality is much greater amongst, you know, the 20-something or 30-something than it would be amongst the 40-something or 50-something.

So, you know, Shalikashvilli's reaction is based on his discussion with troops. If their attitudes had been different, I bet his opinion would've been different. But most of the troops in the poll show that people were tolerant and they're able to work with and get along with. And that seems to me to be the thing that's significant.

So as we move into the 21st century, there's just not any doubt in my mind that old, you know, prohibitions and superstitions and prejudices around homosexuality are going to fall away and our institutions are going to change in order to reflect that; and that's a good thing.

CHIDEYA: I'm also going to stay with you, Glenn, and move on to yet another topic. 2006 was a deadly year for journalists. You talk about people who were serving, troops overseas. You've also got journalists who are out on the front line, and according to the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, there were at least 155 murders, assassinations and unexplained deaths last year. Iraq was the deadliest place for journalists, followed by Mexico. There were 1,400 attacks or threats against the media registered around the world, which is a new record.

How important is it to recognize the dangers that front-line reporters have to go through in order to bring us the news so that we can understand the world? And what role do people who aren't in that position, people who are listening to the news, reading the news, watching the news, have in saying something about this?

Prof. LOURY: It's a very significant issue. I mean we ought to - we consumers of the information that's being gathered by these people who put themselves in harm's away - have some, you know, cognizance of the debt that we owe to the bravery and the professionalism of people who are doing this.

I was amazed to learn - and not surprised, perhaps - but really impressed to learn that 90 percent of the journalists who had been killed in Iraq, of the hundreds who'd been killed in Iraq, are Iraqis. And I think, my God, these people who know the nature of what they're doing, the dangers of it, nevertheless are, you know, putting themselves in a position that, you know, some of them are losing their lives in order that the truth be told.

And of course if governments or militias or terrorists are able to intimidate journalists and create an environment in which journalistic security is - it can't be guaranteed, then that will have a chilling effect on our ability to know what's going on. So this is a very significant issue.

CHIDEYA: Julianne, I remember I did a Knight Fellowship some years ago and there were several war correspondents who were part of my group, one of them had been bayoneted in the stomach by the Taliban. One of them had been shot in the head in Sierra Leone. And I was just really amazed at the sacrifices they were willing to make in order to tell the story. At the same time, not necessarily these people, but a lot of people who are in the business of war-zone reporting say we can't even get our stories in the paper. You know, it's easier to get a picture of Britney Spears in a compromising position getting out of a limo than it is to get the news that we fought so hard to report to do. So isn't it also a question of respect for the craft and for the information?

Ms. MALVEAUX: I think it absolutely, Farai, is an issue of respect for the craft and the information, and also an interest in the information in this global world. It's pathetic that we spend so much time with the so-called celebrity news. When you said Britney, I thought you were going to say Paris Hilton, who, you know…

CHIDEYA: They run together now.

Ms. MALVEAUX: That's right, so they're whatever - Brit-Par(ph) or something like that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALVEAUX: But what you basically have here is the trivialization of what's real, and it's part of the reason why I think we in the United States are having so much trouble with globalization. We don't understand what happens in other countries. We don't understand - even the Iraq story, the story is the number of Americans who've been killed. We don't know how many Iraqis have been killed. And like Glenn, I'm very surprised to know the number of Iraqi journalists who were killed.

The Russia story, Farai, is one that's really quite frightening. The woman who had been a very outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, and I can't pronounce her last name, Anna Politkovskaya. She had been threatened I don't know how many times and finally absolutely executed. And they claim they don't know who did it. And this seems to be a matter of international interest when a journalist is literally assassinated for being a critic of a head of state, not to mention the spy that was later poisoned or whatever.

CHIDEYA: I've got to let Walter in because we're just about out of time. Walter, any final thoughts?

Mr. FIELDS: Well, you know, one of the most memorable clips in these tributes to Ed Bradley was the injury he received in covering the Vietnam War. I don't think most people really understand the dangers that journalists encounter, particularly when they're reporting from a war zone.

But, you know, for American journalists in the Iraq War it has been a very interesting dilemma because the media was so complicit with the government in the sort of promotion of this war. Many of them were closer to the war zone than we've ever seen. They were embedded with these troops and their lives were squarely put in harm's way.

For foreign journalists, I think they live with this everyday. We don't have, you know, parallel situations in most countries where you have freedom of the press. So these people report bravely about their countries and do it at their own risk. And I think every year, not just this year - this might've been the deadliest year - but every year we see journalists around the world who risk their lives to bring the truth to light.

CHIDEYA: All right, we've got to leave it there. Walter Fields, political consultant; Glenn Loury, professor at Brown University; economist and author Julianne Malveaux. Thank you all.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Thank you.

Prof. LOURY: Thank you.

Mr. FIELDS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: And next on NEWS & NOTES, our folks on Political Corner tackle the coming presidential race, and paper dolls hold clues to hidden history.

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