The death penalty is a form of legalized "cruel and unusual punishment" and should be banned across the entirety of the U.S., former president Jimmy Carter urged in a Guardian interview published on Monday.
“It’s time for the Supreme Court to look at the totality of the death penalty once again,” said Carter. “My preference would be for the court to rule that it is cruel and unusual punishment, which would make it prohibitive under the U.S. constitution.”
Carter's sentiment is shared by an increasing number of Americans. As recent polling has shown, support for the death penalty in the U.S. has fallen to its lowest rate in more than four decades. While a majority still approves of the measure, support has fallen from 80% in 1994 to roughly 60% today.
Currently, 32 U.S. states still allow the death penalty. However, as The Guardian notes, the majority of the 1,352 executions since 1976 took place in 2% of the counties in the nation.
According to Amnesty International, since 1976 82% of all executions have taken place in the South, with 37% of those in Texas alone.
Drawing attention to the inherent issues of the death penalty within a flawed criminal justice system, Carter continued:
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.
He added: “It’s almost inconceivable in these modern days to imagine that a rich white man would be executed if he murdered a black person.”
As Amnesty International reported, since 1977, 77% of all death row defendants have been executed for killing white victims, even though African Americans make up about half of all homicide victims.
And the death penalty has become even more controversial as of late. Pentobarbital, which is used by 13 states for lethal injections, became scarce recently after its Danish manufacturer Lundbeck halted its sale to U.S. prisons based on the European Union's opposition to the death penalty. However, rather than decreasing lethal injections, prison authorities are increasingly turning to experimental and unregulated drugs that may subject prisoners to severe pain before they die.
Carter's comments come ahead of this year's National Symposium on the Modern Death Penalty held by the American Bar Association. As The Guardian reports, the symposium will review
the use of ill-equipped, poorly trained and under-paid lawyers to defend people facing capital prosecutions; racial disparities in the pursuit of cases – in Georgia, those suspected of killing whites are almost five times more likely to be sentenced to death than those suspected of killing blacks; huge variations in the rules relating to DNA testing; widespread confusion among jurors sitting at death penalty trials; and the fact that all the assessed states continue to allow people with severe mental illness to be sentenced to death and executed.
Carter also expressed regret over a law he passed in 1973 as governor of Georgia, which established guidelines for the death penalty and lead the Supreme Court to re-institute the practice 1976.
“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 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.”