Reporters' Roundtable: Lethal Injection Debate Our special roundtable with Atlanta reporters takes a closer look at the Supreme Court's ruling on lethal injection, the merger between Delta and Northwest Airlines, and the role of big business in the city.
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Reporters' Roundtable: Lethal Injection Debate

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Reporters' Roundtable: Lethal Injection Debate

Reporters' Roundtable: Lethal Injection Debate

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From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. Today, we finished our week-long coverage from Atlanta. We are bringing you our show from Georgia Public Broadcasting and we have local residents and fans watching the live show today.

First up, highlights from this week's news with our Reporters' Roundtable. We've got Ernie Suggs, urban affairs reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Chandra Thomas, assistant editor and writer for Atlanta Magazine, and Bruce Dixon, managing editor of the online news journal Happy Friday, folks.

Mr. ERNIE SUGGS (Journalist, Atlanta Journal Constitution): Hey, how are you doing? Welcome to Atlanta.

CHIDEYA: Thank you. I've been having a great time here. So there's big news from Washington D.C. this week. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that using a three-drug lethal cocktail to execute prisoners is not cruel and unusual punishment. Now, the death penalty is legal in 36 dates. Twenty-seven of them, including Georgia, require lethal injection as the only method of execution.

Now, the argument brought to the courts by convicted death row prisoners and supported by some medical officials was that the three-drug cocktail posed a potential risk of excruciating pain if it wasn't administered properly. Ernie, tell me more about the arguments and what did the court say?

Mr. SUGGS: Well, the court said that there is no definitive - well, Justice Roberts said that if since we are in a country that has death penalty and 36 dates have the death penalty, we have to have some way of using it and the lethal injection is the best way at this point. You know, we've gone from you know the firing squad to hanging to electric chair and at this point, he has ruled and the court has ruled that the lethal injection is the best method that we have so far for using the death penalty.

How this is going to affect the other 36 states that as you can see very quickly a lot of states have their attorney generals have moved to get the executions that they had on the books rescheduled including some in Georgia. So I think this is a move now by the courts that the state supreme courts are going to follow suit and just start getting these executions actually back up.

CHIDEYA: Ernie, just a follow-up. What specifically is going on in Georgia? You mentioned that...

Mr. SUGGS: Well, we have in Georgia as you know this is a big, well she is a big but its, the death penalty is big in Georgia so we have about 100 people right now on death row. Three people who have exhausted all of their appeals and they - two of them were scheduled to be executed last October.

Those executions, the attorney general Thurbert Baker announced yesterday that he is going to ask the state supreme court to reopen those cases or to re-put those cases back on the calendar. So we are looking right now at least two of those gone before the Supreme Court for reintroduction to be executed.

CHIDEYA: Now, Bruce do you think that this is an issue that people are plugged in to on a community basis in Atlanta, in Georgia. It has a different reverb in different states, but is it making an impact here in terms of people talking about what's fair and what's just?

Mr. BRUCE DIXON ( I think it very much impacts what people think about the fairness of the justice system itself. It's almost as though these conservative legal theorists just wrote themselves a note to the teachers using their own absence and allowing them to do what they are going to do anyway. It just magnifies the experience of the law for ordinary people as being something capricious and unjust and whatever these guys say they want it to be.

CHIDEYA: Now, across the board, states like California, Florida, and Virginia are planning on resuming executions, but other states are reexamining the death penalty for different reasons. For example in 2006, New Jersey put a moratorium on the death penalty because of questions around issues including exoneration of prisoners who were found to be innocent and potential, racial, and economic bias. So, Chandra where do you think the death penalty debates stands on a broader level?

Ms. CHANDRA THOMAS (Assistant Editor, Atlanta Magazine): I think that the issue of the three-drug cocktail is an interesting issue, but I feel particularly here in Atlanta and across the country, I'm a facilitator of a discussion group called Talk Black and the sense that I've gotten while talking with my colleagues is that we are more concerned about the disparities in the death penalty, and how it is swayed toward African-American and other people of color and particularly when it is a crime committed against a Caucasian, and I feel that that's the issue that most people want to talk about.

CHIDEYA: Bruce, some folks look at - this is not strictly a black and white issue there have been shown to be, Chandra was saying, that the people most likely to get the chair are blacks who commit crimes against whites, but some folks look at the broader civil rights issue and say why are civil rights leaders always defending black criminals instead of focusing on everyday working people who don't commit crimes. Is there a question of whether or not there is a backlash against really examining these issues that have to do with crime as opposed to dealing more with other issues.

Mr. DIXON: Well, in this era where people are so fond of saying that we're beyond race and that racial distinctions and racialism is behind this that just doesn't match up with the facts. The federal government, the White House, the task force on drugs will tell you that the rate of drug use between whites and blacks is virtually the same, but the arrest and conviction rate of blacks is many times that of whites.

So, if there was anything lacking in the equal justice system that would not be true. There are what - black people are one-eighth of the nation's population, but we are 45 of its prisons. And we are in outsize proportion of the people in death row around the country, and Latinos are about the same proportion of the American population as black people, and they are over represented in the nation's prison systems too.

Native Americans even have a higher rate of incarceration and conviction than anybody does. So, what we're looking at is a profoundly racialized system of law enforcement here in this country, and it's been that way for quite a while and it's something that people do not admit and do not want to talk about.

CHIDEYA: Ernie, I want to move us to another topic, the Delta/Northwest airline merger. Big news here this week. Big news, internationally even. So some business analysts says that the merged airline would be bigger, but not necessarily more efficient. How do you think this is going to play for Atlantans who were employed by Delta, people who were seeking employment as well as on the larger stage of business?

Mr. SUGGS: Well, if you look at Atlanta, you know, I think about other industrialized cities and towns, and Atlanta is definitely is an aviation town. Delta is a big employer here. Delta, and the airport, the airport is either at some point the busiest airport in the world or the biggest airport in the world. We are building a billion dollar new terminal.

So the airport in aviation history is really big in Atlanta. I think this moved to a merge Delta with Northwest and keeping the hub here in Atlanta, keeping the headquarters in Atlanta is going to be huge for the city. It just makes a stronger globally, makes a stronger economically. I think that, you know as, as you know there are a lot of things going on with gas prices and fuel prices and things of that nature, but I think that is going to be a huge plus for not only for Atlanta, but also for the aviation industry for the airline industry.

And I think that hopefully, you know I think all of the Delta officials and city officials and politicians have sworn this is going to be positive. There are going to be jobs created. I would like to think that this going to happen, and Atlanta will continue to boom with this.

CHIDEYA: Chandra, we've been talking to people throughout the week about how they feel about Atlanta, and people here are very proud. They have a few graves like the traffic. Do you think that building, you know expanding the airport is going to cause yet another bit of congestion or do the benefits out way that?

THOMAS: Well, I think as Ernie pointed out that the airport has been a huge asset, and there are a lot of cities in this region that had the potential traffic. Do you think that building, expanding the airport is going to cost yet another bit of congestion or do the benefits outweigh that?

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, I think, as Ernie pointed out, that the airport has been a huge asset, and there are a lot of cities in this region that had the potential, and the airport is what really sets Atlanta apart. And of course, bring in the Olympics. It is really a plus because of the fact that you can get anywhere all over the world definitely has an impact on the city.

And I think that the biggest challenge with this merger is going to be, how do they meld these two companies together? And I think that the biggest thing that all of us care about is, how does it impact the prices? Will I have to pay more for my flight? And also, will the services be decreased? And if there is a lack of competition, would we kind of be forced to pay those higher prices?

CHIDEYA: Bruce, what do you think about that? How are the passengers going to fair? Because I have to say that I am flying out tomorrow, and every single seat is filled. Gone are those days before 9/11 when you could get a whole row to yourself.

Mr. DIXON: Yeah, I am looking for a couple of tickets to Dallas, if anybody knows anyone...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIXON: Cheap tickets to Dallas. I got to see my son graduate. Mergers like these are always good news for the investors, but they are almost never good news for the consumers and almost never good news for employees. I have never seen a merger that on the whole meant more jobs. Somebody is going to lose some jobs.

Delta has a lower rate of unionization and therefore lower benefits, usually worse healthcare than Northwest. I will bet you that, while investors are going to make out like big dogs, there are going to be some people who are going to lose their medical benefits and lose their retirement benefits. Ticket handlers at Northwest and baggage handlers are unionized in the main.

And Delta's are not. So, some people are going to lose their benefits, lose their homes. There are definitely going to be some losers here. And I've never seen a merger that meant lower price for the public. Come on now. Who has ever seen that?

CHIDEYA: Ernie, when you look at the big picture of this, the gas prices, fuel prices are incredibly high. The economy isn't doing that well overall so you've got less people doing discretionary travel or maybe they will hop in their car and go some place local. Are you concerned that this could still be a very tough time for Delta Airlines?

Mr. SUGGS: I mean, as you know, Delta has had a tough couple of years. You know, they filed a bankruptcy. This merger will definitely help them. It will help Northwest. I think it will help travelers. I think it will give us more options although you know I think the merger is going to give us more routes.

You know, the prices are still going to be high, but we are going to give more routes and more options. But I don't think that this is going to particularly damage Delta. We are going to have to just, you know - we as travelers and as consumers are going to have to look at the different options. We have been doing that for the last...

CHIDEYA: Hitchhiking?

Mr. SUGGS: Four years. Yeah, exactly. Three or four years. And you know, Bruce is talking about finding a ticket to Dallas. You may have to drive or take the train.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUGGS: So, yeah. I think we all have to look at our options.

CHIDEYA: Well, I have to say, there is a great art exhibit of Shona Stone sculpture which I am partial to in between Terminal T and Terminal A, so if you end up going to the airport, take the little tramway and take a look at it so, that is my plug. And Ernie, Chandra, and Bruce, stick with us.

We are going to take a break and come back to tackle more local and national news. Just ahead, more headlines with our Reporters' Roundtable and the drought. Low rainfall helped push Atlanta into this drought but what are civic leaders doing to quench the city's thirst?

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: This is News & Notes. I am Farai Chideya. We are back with our Reporters' Roundtable. Today, we are at Atlanta speaking with three Atlanta journalists. We have Ernie Suggs, urban affairs reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Chandra Thomas, assistant editor and writer for Atlanta Magazine, and Bruce Dixon, managing editor of the online news journal

So, welcome back, and I am going to go straight into another topic about big Atlanta company which is Coca-Cola. It is a corporate sponsor of the Olympic torch relay and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Now, the company is receiving some flak for that support because of controversies over China's human rights. Should it remain a sponsor? What do you think, Chandra?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, they seem to be kindred spirits. You have a lot of protesters protesting China and its practices. And also there have also been a lot of protest toward Coca-Cola and its practices for quite some time, and if you look at the numbers that the recent reports find that sales, net sales for Coke for China up 20 percent. So, basically, they need China to make that money, and I think as long as they are a company that is trying to make a profit, they will always align with who is giving them the money.

CHIDEYA: Bruce, the chief executive of Coca-Cola said, quote, "The torch relay has symbolized openness. It has symbolized hope." Is that approach hypocritical, given the questions over China's policies regarding Tibet and Darfur?

Mr. DIXON: What it symbolizes is, it symbolizes cash money. Coke is in business to make money. Coke is a transnational corporation, and China is, as Chandra said, 1.3 billion people, one of the biggest, biggest markets in the world. And if you are a transnational company, you do not buck governments. You get in bed with them. So, there it is.

Mr. SUGGS: But I also think that there is an effort here that, you know, people say that you should back out or someone to back out or someone to resign. I don't see how Coca-Cola leaving or getting out of the Olympics is going to help Darfur at this point. So, I don't see a reason why they should leave. I think - obviously Neville Isdale doesn't see a reason why they should leave either.

CHIDEYA: Now, let me stay with you, Ernie, and go to a new topic, which is PTSD. A new independent study says that roughly one in every five U.S. troops who've survived attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan now suffer from major depression or posttraumatic stress disorder. That is an estimated 300,000 soldiers. And what is it going to mean for communities, including Atlanta, when these folks come home?

Mr. SUGGS: It is going to be rough. I mean, we are in the midst of a war that people don't realize what has been going on longer than World War II. We have soldiers. We have a lot of bases here in Georgia. Every day, we have soldiers returning home at Hartsville, which we talked about earlier. And these people are being integrated back into these communities, or they are not getting the help that they need.

Posttraumatic stress syndrome is something that is very, very serious. It is something that can sneak up on someone. So, these communities are going to have to embrace these people and the government and the Army and Walter Reed or where ever are going to have to be more progressive in getting help to these soldiers that are defending their lives for us.

CHIDEYA: When you take a look at it, only about half of those soldiers with mental health problems have gotten treatment for their PTSD of depression. And Chandra, after Vietnam, a lot of black communities saw brothers and sisters, brothers, in this case mainly, coming home, you know, just ending up on the corner. Do you expect that to happen?

Ms. THOMAS: Yes, and I think that as we listen to this, it is just yet another casualty of war that cannot be measured. And I don't think that a lot of people are realizing the trickle effect that is not just, oh these people have posttraumatic stress disorder but the effect on families, on you know, this person is unproductive. He cannot work. The effects on marriages.

So, it is a huge impact on our community. And I think that the military is going to have to step up and figure out how to get these people treated in an effective manner, and understand also that there are a lot of concern about, do mental health professionals want to be dispatched into a war zone? So, it is going to be a serious impact in, and we may be looking at the same results of Vietnam.

CHIDEYA: Bruce, what about the rapid decline in the number of African-Americans who are new enlistees in the military? A lot of folks have linked that to the political tensions over whether or not this is a just war. But do you think the way that America is treating its veterans is also part of that?

Mr. DIXON: The way that America treats its veterans is inseparable from what America does. A lot of these people are going to be suffering from PTSD not just because of what they saw and what they did over there, but because they know that they were lied to, to be sent over there to do this. That has got to have an effect, too, not just that you've killed, not just that your friends have been killed in your sight, but you know, that this was about a lie.

So, that has got to work on people and it is hard to see what the ultimate payback for that is going to be. And as you said, Farai, if anything, the numbers of people suffering from PTSD are grossly, grossly underreported, because the military has made it a very inconvenient, sometimes career-ending move to ask for psychological help.

Some people, it's been reported, who have been unwise enough to ask for psychological help, have had their time extended because of that and have been unable to leave the military and unable to go home because they asked for help. So, there is going to be a lot to pay for and we're going to be a long time paying for it.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Chandra, Bruce, Ernie, thank you so much.

Ms. THOMAS: Thank you.

Mr. SUGGS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We have been speaking with Ernie Suggs, urban affairs reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Chandra Thomas, assistant editor and writer for Atlanta Magazine, and Bruce Dickson, managing editor of the online news journal And they all joined me here in Atlanta at Georgia Public Broadcasting.

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