Jimmy Carter’s Crusade Against the Death Penalty Is Lonely, But Is He Winning?

The former president called for a national moratorium at a time when public support for capital punishment is at a 40-year low.

'Old Sparky', the decommissioned electric chair in which 361 prisoners were executed between 1924 and 1964, at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas. 
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Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Nov. 12, 2013, 6:46 a.m.

Former Pres­id­ent Carter called for a na­tion­al morator­i­um on cap­it­al pun­ish­ment in the United States on Tues­day, de­clar­ing in a speech, “We should ab­ol­ish the death pen­alty here and throughout the world.”

Carter pro­ceeded to me­tic­u­lously enu­mer­ate the oft-cited eth­ic­al, fin­an­cial, and leg­al reas­ons for his op­pos­i­tion, which are noth­ing new for the oc­to­gen­ari­an; he ex­pressed doubt about the death pen­alty as far back as his pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns.

“Per­haps the strongest ar­gu­ment against the death pen­alty is its ex­treme bi­as against the poor, minor­it­ies, and those with men­tal dis­ab­il­it­ies,” Carter said at a na­tion­al sym­posi­um hos­ted by the Amer­ic­an Bar As­so­ci­ation at the Carter Cen­ter in At­lanta. “It’s hard to ima­gine a rich white man or wo­man go­ing to the death cham­ber after be­ing de­fen­ded by ex­pens­ive law­yers.”

Carter’s re­marks come at a time when sup­port for the death pen­alty among Amer­ic­ans has fallen to 60 per­cent, the low­est read­ing since 1972 and down from a mid-1990s high of 80 per­cent. States with cap­it­al pun­ish­ment are also fa­cing un­pre­ced­en­ted chal­lenges in their ef­forts to se­cure the drugs ne­ces­sary to per­form ex­e­cu­tions by way of leth­al in­jec­tion.

But 60 per­cent is still a strong ma­jor­ity, and Carter’s polit­ic­al battle is noth­ing if not lonely. Cap­it­al pun­ish­ment has not in­filt­rated main­stream polit­ic­al de­bate since at least 1988, when Vice Pres­id­ent Bush ef­fect­ively used Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent Mi­chael Duka­kis’s op­pos­i­tion to paint him as soft on crime. Vir­tu­ally every pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate dur­ing the past sev­er­al cycles has sup­por­ted the death pen­alty, al­though former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo con­demned the prac­tice in 2011 for killing “many in­no­cent people.”

Still, pub­lic sen­ti­ment on cap­it­al pun­ish­ment moves more than on abor­tion rights, and Carter sees oth­er op­tions for ban­ning the prac­tice, in­clud­ing the Su­preme Court. He sug­ges­ted that the all the leg­al sys­tem needed was a punch in the gut to con­sider re­sum­ing the morator­i­um handed down in 1972 as a res­ult of the Su­preme Court’s Fur­man v. Geor­gia opin­ion.

“The Su­preme Court is heav­ily in­flu­enced by pub­lic opin­ion,” Carter said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Su­preme Court changes its mind on a num­ber of is­sues, par­tic­u­larly so­cial is­sues, be­cause of pub­lic opin­ion.”

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