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.