Four decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, finding that its imposition at the time was so arbitrary and “pregnant with discrimination” that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. As governor of Georgia at the time, former President Jimmy Carter helped to reinstate the death penalty by signing measures into law that would satisfy the court’s concerns. The revisions worked, and the U.S. Supreme Court removed the moratorium in 1976.
But Carter now says he regrets his role in resuming executions. “If I had to do that over again I would certainly be much more forceful in taking actions what would have prohibited the death penalty,” he told the Guardian in an interview timed to an American Bar Association symposium on the death penalty. “In complete honesty, when I was governor [of Georgia] I was not nearly as concerned about the unfairness of the application of the death penalty as I am now. I know much more now. I was looking at it from a much more parochial point of view — I didn’t see the injustice of it as I do now.”
On Tuesday, Carter called for worldwide abolition of the death penalty. And he told the Guardian this week that the U.S. Supreme Court should find the death penalty inherently cruel and unusual, or at the very least re-instate the moratorium, given that the U.S. system of executions that is no less arbitrary than it was 41 years ago:
The only consistency today is that the people who are executed are almost always poor, from a racial minority or mentally deficient. In America today, if you have a good attorney you can avoid the death penalty; if you are white you can avoid it; if your victim was a racial minority you can avoid it. But if you are very poor or mentally deficient, or the victim is white, that’s the way you get sentenced to death.
As Carter suggests, studies show the vast majority of executions for interracial murders since 1976 have involved crimes with a black defendant and a white victim. A 1990 GAO study found that race was a factor in the death sentence in 82 percent of cases. In Alabama, just six percent of murders involve black defendants and white victims, but 60 percent of black death row inmates were convicted of killing a white person. In Colorado, African Americans make up four percent of the population and 100 percent of the death row. And in Louisiana, the odds of a death sentence were 97 percent higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black. Another new study shows the primacy of location in who faces execution. Just two percent of counties perform the majority of U.S. executions, according to a new study. And Carter’s home state is committed to executing a mentally ill man despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s prohibition of the practice.
In a new Gallup poll, death penalty support reached its lowest level in 40 years — similar to that when the U.S. Supreme Court last imposed a moratorium. But more than 50 percent of Americans still believe the death penalty is applied fairly — perhaps because there is such a small, concentrated number of executions. Stories of faulty murder convictions or death sentences, meanwhile, continue to emerge with alarming frequency.