Thirty years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court changed its mind and ruled that, after a four-year moratorium, capital punishment was constitutional again. Since then, 38 states and the federal government have enacted laws deeming death an appropriate punishment for the most serious crimes.

For a while, it seemed some states — especially Florida and Texas — couldn't execute death-row inmates fast enough. But the trend has slowed recently. The Florida Supreme Court shot down a dramatic 2002 attempt by the Florida Legislature to speed up executions by curtailing appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution of the mentally retarded and juveniles. More recently, it allowed a Florida death row inmate to challenge the constitutionality of lethal injection, one reason that Florida hasn't executed anyone since April 2005, a lengthy dry spell in Jeb Bush's administration.

Popular support for the death penalty is still there, but it's slipping. The practice is expensive: It costs more to convict someone of a capital crime and implement the death penalty than it does to put him or her in prison for life, according to information published by the Death Penalty Information Center. It's racist: Eighty-two percent of those executed killed white people, though more than half of all violent crimes are committed against minorities, according to the group Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CUADP). And, too often, it's wrong: Since the Supreme Court's decision, more than 120 people have been released from death row because their convictions didn't stand up. It's a safe bet that at least one innocent person has been executed.

But executions persist. There are more executions in America than in any other country in the world, save three: China, Saudi Arabia and Iran. That's not good company to be in for a country that proclaims itself a supporter of human rights.

What's the future of capital punishment in the United States? We talked with Abe Bonowitz, director of the CUADP. Before CUADP, he was the director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and he's been a leading anti—capital punishment advocate in this state for many years.

How did you get involved with the anti—death penalty movement?

I went to a meeting of a group called Amnesty International on the campus of Ohio State University. … I was surprised when they were talking about stopping executions of murderers. And I argued with them and I said, "You know, if you kill you should be killed, and that's it." I set out to try to prove that the death penalty was OK, and that what they were saying about it, that they were wrong. I found out that everything I thought about the death penalty, the truth was the opposite: I thought it was cheaper to kill them. I thought we had a system that was fair and accurate, and I found out that I was wrong and I had to change my mind about it. … `E`ven if there are people that deserved to be executed, we can't trust government with the power or the obligation to kill.

Seventy-five percent of the 211 federal death penalty prosecutions since 1988 have been against minorities. Forty percent of the 682 cases where the Justice Department sought the death penalty from 1988 to 2000 were filed by only five jurisdictions. Nationwide, more than half of the death row population is minority. Doesn't the death penalty seem arbitrary?

What matters more than the crime is race and politics and geography and especially money, because you have to kill in a county that can afford a death penalty trial. If you kill in a county that's too rural and doesn't have a big enough tax base, then right away, even if you've committed a crime that's
punishable by death, it's unlikely that they can afford to prosecute you. That's part of the geography question, but also race — and not just the race of the perpetrator, but the race of the victim. If the victim is perceived to be more valuable or more prominent in the community or, you know, a white person, then it's more likely that they will seek the death penalty as punishment for that murder.

When the Supreme Court ended the ban on capital punishment in 1976, the rate of death sentences began to rise, but it's gone down in recent years. There were 300 death sentences in 1998, but just 148 in 2003. Why?

Juries are becoming harder to convince that cases are death cases. There's less confidence in the death penalty as a punishment, because it rarely gets carried out. And also there's less confidence in prosecutors because of the number of wrongful convictions that have been exposed. There's less confidence in prosecutors to be giving them all the truth. … `T`he fact is, when it's you sitting on a jury and you've got to decide and you've seen all these people getting off who are innocent and you've seen the number of cases `where state officials` cheat and lie, you have to just keep that in mind as you go through that process.

Do you see capital punishment becoming less of an effective political tool?

Clearly. … `I`n the last general election in the United States, you have the governor of New Jersey and the governor of Virginia elected, having said … in their campaign that they don't support the death penalty. So it's no longer the poison to say that you're opposed to executions or, perhaps more appropriately, that you think the death penalty is a bad public policy. Regardless of what you think of the idea that people deserve to be killed, as a public policy, it fails; and if legislators are honest about it and politicians are honest about it, then they're going to recognize that, hey, it
doesn't do what we think it's going to do for us and in fact it's going to be a huge waste of public funds, and we should just not worry about it, we shouldn't do it. … `I`n 2002 and we went and confronted `Jeb Bush` on this and he said that this is for the victims' families.

And I went and talked to him about it, and I said, "You say the death penalty is for victims' families. Well, if that's true, why are we using it so infrequently?" And his answer was, "Well, we can't have equal justice for everyone." That's a direct quote. And, of course, carved into the face of the United States Supreme Court building are the words "equal justice under law." So I think there's a recognition that if we can't have a system that's fair and equal and accurate, then we need a different ultimate punishment.

Polling indicates that the death penalty still has the support of the majority of Americans, but there's a general sense that that support is softer than it was a decade ago. Why?

People are becoming more educated about the system and `its` failings, but also there's a recognition that the death penalty doesn't do what we think it might. Because we recognize that, people are less inclined to turn to that as a response. The fact is when you give people a choice — would you prefer the death penalty or life without parole, which might better be termed death by incarceration? — when you offer that … people really go for it. In fact, the last time there was a statewide poll in Florida, it found that 66 percent of Floridians supported a moratorium on executions and 55 percent prefer life without parole.

There have been more than 100 people released from death row since 1973.

Florida leads the nation with 26.

How do you think that fact has affected death penalty support?

That's probably the most important factor in changing public opinion. The fact that not only have we released more than 123 people off our death rows in this country who were found to be innocent, not only do we have this record of wrongful convictions, but people recognize that, again, it's a mistake that's being made.

The United States has been trying to promote itself as a country with high standards for human rights, but it ranked fourth among nations of the world in number of executions in 2005, behind only China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Doesn't the continued use of capital punishment hurt the image we're trying to portray to the world?

It's kind of a folly for the United States to claim to be a leader in human rights. But it is interesting, and people kind of cringe when you demonstrate the nations that we stand with in terms of executions are China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. These are our cohorts in the numbers of people being executed.

Activists and death penalty lawyers have taken a different approach in recent years. For instance, instead of arguing about the immorality of the death penalty, now the argument is over the infliction of pain at execution, or racial and economical disparities, or executing the mentally challenged or juveniles, or the potential innocence of some death row inmates.

I don't think anything's changed. What's changed is the media and others are choosing what arguments they want to hear, but none of these arguments are new. … It's a reaction when something becomes self-evident, for example, the whole question of lethal injection. Now the reason that's being discussed so much is new studies have found, have raised questions about whether it's painful in its application. … We have known the problem. For somebody that really knows or pays attention to this issue, the death penalty is not about the moment that we exterminate a prisoner. From the time a person understands that they are facing the death penalty, the death penalty is in process for that person. Death row itself, the idea that you're waiting to be executed, is a form of torture according to Amnesty International. It's psychological torture. So it's much more than the moment of execution. And, again, the issues we talked about: juveniles. Of course juveniles can no longer get the death penalty in this country. … Retarded people. Of course now they can't get it either. But it is because of just the way it's happened to come through the court system that these things have been litigated, that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, and different state governments as well, the evolving standards of decency that say we're not going to kill our children, we're not going to kill our mentally deficient people. And that's just in a way a moral change, but it's also rooted in new recognition that what we've been doing all along has been wrong.

Do you think the death penalty ever will be abolished in the United States?

I have no question in my mind. It's only a matter of public education and it's also a matter of politicians becoming leaders instead of, you know, politicians. By becoming leaders, they will recognize, and they do recognize, that even if you like the idea of executions, what you have is a bad public policy that treats people differently according to money and race and politics and geography and that's inappropriate. You also have this incredible waste of resources — in particular, all the money that's spent over and above what we would spend if all we had was life without parole. Now in Florida, you have the retired chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court … saying the Florida Supreme Court spends 50 percent of its time on 3 percent of its cases. That's a huge waste of state resources.

More by Megan Schumacher


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