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

Dustin Volz

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.

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"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."

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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.

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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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