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Old 04-12-2003, 09:10 PM
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Default Researcher calls for execution ‘time-out’

Says inequities still exist in Oklahoma’s system
04/12/03
Jane Glenn Cannon

When it comes to the death penalty, race matters — particularly, the race of the victim, a Colorado sociology professor who has spent his career researching death penalty issues told a University of Oklahoma audience Friday.

If a homicide victim is white and socially prominent, a defendant is six times more likely to get a death sentence than if the victim is black, Michael Radelet said.

In rural regions, he added, the likelihood is eight times greater that a defendant will get a death sentence for killing a white person.

Radelet is a national death penalty expert who co-authored a study of death row cases in Illinois which was instrumental in that state’s governor issuing a blanket clemency to death row inmates prior to his leaving office last January.

Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 in- mates to life without parole and pardoned four other death row inmates who he determined had been tortured into confessing to crimes they did not commit.

Ryan said inequities based on race and region cited by Radelet’s study influenced his decision.

Oklahoma has the same issues which need to be studied, Radelet told a group of about 150 sociology and law students at OU, “but no such study is being done in this state.”

What differentiates the death penalty system in Illinois from the system in Oklahoma is “political leadership,” he said. “It takes courage to call for a moratorium on the death penalty so the issue can be studied … it takes the courage of one’s convictions to act on the results of a study.”

A moratorium “is simply a time-out to look at the issue,” Radelet said, noting Ryan called for a moratorium on executions three years ago after the state released its 13th wrongfully convicted death row inmate.

Ryan’s concerns over a system he called “broken” led him to establish a bipartisan commission to study the problem and suggest solutions, Radelet said.

Radelet said he and criminologist Glenn Pierce were recruited by the commission to study the Illinois system.

“What we found was that for similar homicides, those convicted of killing whites were 60 percent more likely to get the death penalty than those who killed blacks,” he said. “In addition, those committing murder in Chicago were 84 percent less likely to receive death than those killed in a rural area.”

Issues of race and regional differences make application of the death penalty inequitable, he said. “That’s been borne out by other studies done through the years.”

Studies done on death penalty cases during a period between the 1930s and the 1960s “turned up all sorts of examples where people were railroaded with little evidence” and ended up on death row, he said.

Those studies also indicated 54 percent of the death row inmates during that period of time were black, Radelet said.

The findings resulted in a national moratorium in 1972. Death penalty laws were rewritten, and the death penalty reinstituted in many states under stricter guidelines in 1977.

However, Radelet said, “in- equities still exist … surprisingly enough, the percentage of minorities on death row actually has gone up. It is now 55 percent.”

But the national debate about capital punishment has changed since then, Radelet said.

Formerly, he said, proponents of the death penalty argued it served as a deterrent to crime, that it was the “morally correct” punishment for murder and that it cost fewer tax dollars to kill inmates than to house them for life.

Study after study has “conclusively shown” the death penalty does not act as a deterrent, Radelet said. In addition, “most religions now agree on the premise that capital punishment is not morally right.” And, he added, studies have shown that it costs $4 to $5 million for a death penalty case to move through the system to an execution versus $600,000 to house an inmate for life.

All states now have a life without parole sentence, Radelet said, “so those people will die in prison. The perception before was that if an inmate did not get a death sentence he would be eligible for parole.”

The debate now is about the inequitable use of the death penalty, Radelet said, “and the very real fact” that people have been executed for crimes they did not commit.

Based on national statistics, Radelet said, Oklahomans “really love the death penalty.”

Oklahoma ranks third in the United States for the number of people being executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, he said. Texas is number one, and Virginia is number two.

Oklahoma also “has the dubious distinction,” Radelet said, “of being one of the few states to execute juveniles.” (Those executed were juveniles at the time the crimes were committed but were adults at the time of the executions.)

Worldwide, Radelet said, “the United States is number four in the top-ranking executing countries.” China leads the world, he said, followed by Iran and Saudi Arabia.

But, Radelet said, “the U.S. may soon be number three because there is strong talk of abolishing the death penalty in China.”

International pressure to do away with capital punishment is increasing, Radelet said, and “the bottom line is that in the next few years, there is going to be increased discussion” about issues of racial bias and regional differences, as well as an increased emphasis on “how best to serve the families of homicide victims. How can we best address their pain?”

Radelet said he has met with victims’ parents “and their number one desire is to know who killed their son or daughter ... many favor life in prison without parole over death because they believe it is a worse punishment than death.”

And, he said, many victims “would be better served” with financial help than with money being spent on state executions. Most of them, Radelet said, “face questions like, ‘Who’s going to pay for my shrink?’”

Radelet’s appearance at OU was co-sponsored by the sociology department and the law college.

Jane Glenn Cannon covers police and the courts. She can be reached at 366-3538 or by e-mail at jcannon@normantranscript. com.

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