Voices: Michael Radelet

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“Justice Thurgood Marshall was correct in 1972 when he predicted that if people were better informed about the death penalty, they would reject it. That is why the norms are changing, why capital punishment is in decline, and why eventual abolition is inevitable.”

Four days after University of Colorado Sociology Professor Michael L. Radelet wrote those words in an essay for Medium, the Department of Justice announced that the government was going to resume executing federal prisoners after a 16-year hiatus.

But far from being discouraged by this turn of events, Radelet, a lifelong abolitionist, says his optimism “may have even been strengthened. It again shows how capital punishment is not a crime-fighting tool, but a political tool used by politicians; in this case to deflect attention from the fact that the embattled Justice Department has a public trust problem. They’re trying to divert attention by using capital punishment. There are three arguments for the death penalty: politics, politics, politics.”

Radelet compares the death penalty debate to the discussions that once centered on gay marriage and recreational marijuana, noting that just as public opinion shifted on those issues, there’s a growing realization that abolishing the death penalty is a human rights issue. “We all have a stake in this. It’s really much like the people who fought slavery 150 years ago. It wasn’t because they loved the slaves or even knew the slaves; they were fighting for themselves and the type of society they wanted to construct.”

His optimism is based in part on how long he’s been in the trenches. He got involved in the 1970s, a time “when the sky really was falling, and there was no reason to be optimistic.” It was a time when the two sides of the debate were so polarized he would take his anti-death penalty sticker off his car when he took it to be serviced so the mechanic wouldn’t put sugar in the gas tank. After an interview on Florida television in which he explained why he was opposed to capital punishment, Radelet received death threats. So, from his perspective, “There’s no question that if we step back and take the long-term historical view, abolitionists are winning the fight.”

He points to Washington’s and New Hampshire’s repeal, and even Nebraska’s in 2015 (reinstated a year later when Nebraska voters approved a ballot measure partly financed by the state’s “hateful governor” reversing the legislature’s repeal) as important indicators of the growing trend to abolish. “I think it’s coming state by state, maybe a lot slower than we want but happening more quickly than anyone imagined when Death Penalty Focus first started (in 1988).

“It’s very difficult to see the impact while you’re in the middle of it. It can seem very mundane and sometimes you wonder if you’re making any impact at all. People may disagree about abolition, but abolitionists aren’t embarrassed about their position, and the more they talk, the more people learn, and it gradually becomes more acceptable to be anti-death penalty,” he says. Another factor, as Radelet wrote in his Medium essay, is that “The alternatives to the death penalty have changed, with every state now guaranteeing that anyone eligible for the death penalty can and will be incarcerated for life terms. This takes the wind out of the argument that we need executions to guarantee public safety.”

If you had told anyone in the movement 30 years ago that in 2019, the country would be evenly divided between states that have the death penalty (25), and those that don’t, (21 have repealed and four have moratoria), “They would have thought you were crazy,” says Radelet. “It would have been unimaginable.”

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