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Criminal: 'Do We Deserve To Kill?'

A drawing of Alabama.
Julienne Alexander
Alabama has one of the highest execution rates in the country.

Convicted criminals can sit on death row for many years after the crime scene is cleaned up and packed away.

In this week's Criminal Podcast, host Phoebe Judge interviews attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, a state with one of the highest execution rates in the country.

Stevenson started out at Harvard Law School, but was ambivalent about his career choice until an internship sent him to Atlanta to inform an inmate that his execution date wouldn't come within a year.

That in-person visit was such a relief for the inmate, who had been avoiding visits from family for fear of his impending execution, that he left their meeting singing. Stevenson, who opposes the death penalty, said that was when he realized he was needed in this area of work.

"I don't think the death penalty in America can be resolved by asking whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit," said Stevenson, who’s been working with death row inmates for 30 years. "I think the threshold question is, ‘Do we deserve to kill'?"

He added: "We make terrible mistakes. I just got one release of a man a year ago who was the 156th person exonerated, released from death row after being proven innocent," he said. "That means that for every nine people we've executed in the country, we've now identified one innocent person on death row. It is a shameful rate of error. If for every nine planes that took off, one crashed, no one would fly."

Stevenson's own grandfather was murdered, but he says he doesn't believe any criminal is beyond redemption.

"I mean, it's easy to be just to people you like, people you favor. It's easy to be compassionate toward people who you have a lot of respect for. But it's not really mercy if you give it to the people who deserve it," Stevenson said. "Mercy is mercy if you should say, 'Oh, no. They can't get mercy, they don't deserve it.' That's what mercy's about."

He believes it's more useful to consider the environments in which children are raised to become violent, and to intervene before they commit crimes.

"If we spent more time trying to understand how people came to these decisions and why, then we could do so much more to disrupt, to reduce crime, to actually create public safety," he said.

You can hear Judge's interview with Bryan Stevenson on this week's Criminal podcast. Criminal is recorded at WUNC.

Phoebe Judge is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on a numerous national radio programs. She regularly conducts interviews and anchors WUNC's broadcast of Here & Now. Previously, Phoebe served as producer, reporter and guest host for the nationally distributed public radio program The Story. Earlier in her career, Phoebe reported from the gulf coast of Mississippi. She covered the BP oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. Phoebe's work has won multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards. Phoebe was born and raised in Chicago and is graduate of Bennington College and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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