“It is clear that there are overwhelming ethical, financial, and religious reasons to abolish the death penalty,” former president Jimmy Carter wrote in a 2012 op-ed titled “Show Death Penalty the Door” in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Long considered by historians as one of the greatest ex-presidents in American history for his work in human rights, global health issues and promoting world peace, Carter’s opposition to the death penalty might seem unsurprising. Yet, his abolitionist stance has evolved over the past 42 years, transforming him from death penalty advocate into a staunch opponent.
In 1973, while serving as governor of Georgia, Carter played an instrumental role in convincing the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the moratorium on the death penalty it imposed a year earlier. He did this by signing into law guidelines for applying the death penalty that met the court’s criteria for constitutional executions in the case Gregg v. Georgia in 1976. And with that case, the national moratorium on executions was lifted.
At a national death penalty symposium sponsored by the Carter Center and the American Bar Association in 2013, Carter said, “In complete honesty, when I was governor 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.”
In an interview with the Guardian that same year, Carter said he wanted the Supreme Court to look at the “totality of the death penalty once again” and “rule that it is cruel and unusual punishment, which would make it prohibitive under the U.S. constitution.”
Carter’s about-face on the constitutionality and morality of the death penalty mirrors a shift in public opinion in the United States. For years, the great majority of Americans supported capital punishment, but the tide has shifted in recent years, with support steadily decreasing. Polls released in April by Pew Research Center and CBS News both reported that 56 percent of Americans support the death penalty — the lowest ever recorded by CBS, and one of the lowest reported by Pew in the last 40 years.
But Carter, a former president and former governor of a Southern state, as well as the recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, is one of the most prominent public figures to call for abolition. It’s a courageous stance, one not many American politicians are willing to take. But Carter has spent his life taking a stand on what he believes to be right, not what is politically expedient.
“I think any time a person concedes error on a very contentious issue it takes courage. It’s easier to stick with what you’ve said or done than admit you were wrong. I give him a lot of credit for being willing to step up to the plate and admit he was wrong back then,” says Stanford Law Professor John J. Donohue III.
In 1980, Donohue wrote what he calls a “very critical” article about Georgia’s death penalty law and of the Georgia Supreme Court, which he describes as having been a “rubber stamp for the death penalty” at the time. The article, “Godfrey v. Georgia: Creative Federalism, the Eighth Amendment, and the Evolving Law of Death,” appeared in the Catholic University Law Review.
He says of Carter, “He was one of the first through the door in getting a new death penalty statute amended that became the model for other states to meet the requirements set by the U.S. Supreme Court for having a constitutional death penalty.”
So Carter’s admission, 40 years later, that he was wrong, resonates strongly with Donohue.
“His expression of regret enables others to realize you can look back, revisit and do better,” he says. And he believes that Carter’s call for abolition will reverberate among an important group of people. “Given his religious background and southern white heritage, he has the ability to change the minds of southern white males and evangelicals,” he says.
Carter turns 91 this year, and recently disclosed that he has liver cancer, which has spread to his brain. He announced the diagnosis at a press conference, at which he displayed the same calm and courage that has defined his public life.
“Of cowards no history is written,” goes an old English proverb. The written history of Jimmy Carter will be long indeed.