Carter calls for abolition of death penalty

Former President Jimmy Carter on Tuesday called for the end of capital punishment, saying it is too often imposed against the poor, minorities and those with mental disabilities.

“We should abolish the death penalty here and throughout the world,” Carter said during a symposium at the Carter Center sponsored by the American Bar Association.

While governor, Carter signed into law Georgia’s new death-penalty statute in 1973, a year after the U.S. Supreme Court found capital punishment unconstitutional. Georgia’s new law was upheld by the high court in 1976.

Since then, more than 1,350 condemned killers have been executed nationwide, including 53 in Georgia. There are now 90 men and one woman on Georgia’s death row.

The 89-year-old former president said there was little question about politically supporting the death penalty in Georgia, or nationwide, in 1973.

But his views have changed since then. In 2000, Carter called for a moratorium on capital punishment. On Tuesday, he called for its abolition, saying he believed it does not serve as a deterrent, is too costly, is imposed unfairly and has resulted in innocent people being put on death row.

“I would say perhaps the strongest argument against the death penalty is extreme violence in its use against the poor, the minorities and those who have diminished mental capacities,” Carter added.

“Although homicide victims are six times more likely to be black than white, 76 percent of death-penalty cases involve white victims. It’s hard to imagine a rich white man or woman going to the death chamber after being defended by expensive lawyers. This illustrates a higher value placed on the lives of white Americans. … Everyone knows that’s not fair.”

During a panel discussion, Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, asked Carter what advice he’d give if, hypothetically, a member of his family was running for governor and asked what position to take on the death penalty. The question drew laughter throughout the audience; it was no secret that one of Carter’s grandsons, Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, recently announced his intention to challenge Gov. Nathan Deal.

Carter, breaking out his trademark grin, paused before giving his answer: “If I ever have someone like that in my family, I’ll give them the speech I just gave and ask them to do what they think in their heart is right, because I don’t believe that the death-penalty abolition would be an overwhelmingly negative factor in Georgia politics.”

He added, “Maybe, with a new governor in Georgia, we’ll see changes in the future.”

Later Tuesday, Jason Carter indicated that may not occur.

“I love my grandfather,” he said. “But we disagree on this issue. I believe in the death penalty for heinous crimes, and that won’t change when I’m governor.”

Deal, who supports capital punishment, declined to comment, a spokesman said.

The former president also criticized the burden of proof Georgia imposes on inmates who say they are ineligible for execution because they are intellectually disabled. Georgia is the only state that requires inmates to prove their disability beyond a reasonable doubt.

Georgia’s strict burden of proof, Carter said, “makes it almost legally impossible” for inmates to prove they are mentally disabled. “That would be hard for me to do if the jury was bipartisan in nature,” he quipped.

Last month, the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee convened a study group that heard testimony on the impact of possible changes to Georgia’s burden of proof. Chairman Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, said the panel will continue to study the pros and cons of the issue.

As for the death penalty, it is one option that Georgia’s district attorneys can pursue when seeking punishment against the most heinous offenders, Golick said. “It is very clear that having that option is in line with the prevailing viewpoint of the people of Georgia,” he said, “and therefore I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.”