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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. Today, for the final installment of our criminal justice series, we take a look at the death penalty. The United States comes fifth in placing in the world when it comes to executing inmates. We fall slightly above Iraq and right below Pakistan, but the death penalty has always been controversial in America.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-1970s, all death-row inmates have been put to death for killing another person. But now, a surprising array of crimes can land you on death row. For a broader look at capital punishment, we have Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Welcome, Richard.

Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So, 3,000 people, more than that, are on death row. Forty-two people were executed in 2007, half of them were African-Americans. What has been the breakdown racially and in terms of other demographics of people who actually, you know, go on death row or are executed?

Mr. DIETER: Well, the numbers of African-Americans on death row is about 42 percent, compared to their numbers in the population at about 12 percent. So, there's a disproportionate number of African-Americans on death row. The numbers executed is a little less, about 34 percent, but still disproportionate.

However, the biggest factor in race in the death penalty is that it depends whom you kill in the murder that got you on death row. If you kill a white person, then you really have a death penalty case that's four or five times more likely that a person, white or black, will get the death penalty if they killed a white person than if they killed a black person, which is sort of putting a value on the victims' lives by color.

CHIDEYA: So basically, all crimes are not equal. That's what you're saying.

Mr. DIETER: That's right. That's the way it breaks down. If a crime is committed in the poor part of town or to someone who isn't, you know, influential and the DA's race or office, or you know, not a contributor, that may be prosecuted. It may get a punishment, but it's not necessarily a death penalty case, and almost always it isn't. You know, on the reverse, it is a death penalty case.

CHIDEYA: Richard, when you take a look at these issues, how do they play out by states? Don't states have very different approaches to the death penalty?

Mr. DIETER: Yes. You know, U.S. ranks fifth in the world in terms of the death penalty, but the death penalty in the U.S. is not at all uniform. Over 80 percent of the executions in the U.S. are in the South, and that has been true since 1976 when the death penalty came back. And it's true, every year - was even, you know, a higher percentage last year, with 26 out of the 42 executions just in one state, Texas, you know, over 60 percent just in one state.

So the states that have had a history of racial divisiveness - not that that's not a problem everywhere - but where slavery and segregation were law, you know, those are the states leading with executions, whether there's, you know - how deep the connections go. But you know, there continue to be problems with jury selection, with statements made by prosecutors, and even defense attorneys, that would be considered, you know, totally out of line in most areas, but you know, have happened in courtrooms across the U.S.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about a specific case. There was a 1977 ruling called Coker versus Georgia, and it said that executing someone for the rape of an adult if the crime didn't also include murder was unconstitutional. So, what did that mean and why was it important?

Mr. DIETER: Well, that was a case of a rape of an adult woman, and the Supreme Court said that the death penalty would be disproportionate because the victim did not die, but they obviously left open the possibility that - what if the victim were a child? And so that's where this issue has now become important. A few states, like Louisiana, have passed laws that would allow the death penalty, even if there's not a murder, if a child was sexually assaulted.

And the U.S. Supreme Court took a case from Louisiana. They're the only state with someone on death row for this, and we're awaiting their decision. It could signal an opening of the death penalty to the crime of rape again, or could indicate that, you know, if we're going to have the death penalty, there has to be a death or murder involved. That's where the American consensus is on this issue, and that ruling will come by the end of June.

CHIDEYA: When you say the American consensus, you mean Americans in general favor the death penalty when someone's been killed, but don't when someone has not been killed?

Mr. DIETER: Well, you know, that question is rarely asked in polls. But yes, essentially, that's right, and the way you'd measure that is the fact that 45 of the state legislatures don't allow the death penalty except if there's a murder, and there have been no one executed for any crime but murder since 1976. There's only two people on death row anywhere in the whole country, out of the 3,300 who are there, for any crime but murder and those are both in Louisiana and one is the case before the Supreme Court.

So, through its legislatures, through its juries, through its review of this issue, there appears to be a consensus that the death penalty is approved for murder, but we don't do it for other offenses and, you know, that is the question before the court. But I think a fair reading of most of the country is, you know, that they don't have it. Not to say that you ask the person, you know, and describe that particularly horrible sexual assault that they would say kill the guy. But that's different from having a law - you know, the history of rape and the death penalty and race is even worse than the death penalty generally. It was almost exclusively used against blacks for raping whites.

CHIDEYA: When you look at America now, where there has been this whole exoneration movement of, you know, investigators looking into who has been falsely sent to death row, as well as all the other factors around investigations of incarceration and who gets sent to jail, where do you see the death penalty going in the future, in terms of how states examine it and how individual citizens examine it?

Mr. DIETER: Actually, the death penalty is on the decline, and I think the innocence cases, the description you just gave of mistakes, DNA, that has led to a skepticism about the death penalty, not a complete rejection, but death sentences are down about 60 percent since 1999 in this country, and executions have also dropped. The size of death row has dropped, and generally, the public is now more willing to impose life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty, and they support that in public opinion polls.

So I think there is a chance that the death penalty may wind down, and as I mentioned, it's already mostly being practiced in the South, at least in terms of executions. And even there, there was a case recently in Texas where an illegal immigrant received a life sentence for the murder of a police officer in Houston, Texas. This is just last week. That's unheard of, but may indicate that things are changing even in Texas.

CHIDEYA: Richard, thanks so much.

Mr. DIETER: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Richard Dieter is the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

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