November/December 2002
Richard Dieter, Esq.                                                 
Interviewed September 2002 via email from Washington, D.C.

The Death Penalty Information Center:
Examining the Death Penalty
Q:  Why did you enter the legal profession?

A:  I started law school when I was 42 years old. I had been active in civil rights and human rights work for many years. I hoped that the legal profession would give me another tool to help bring about change. I was also looking for a challenge and for a way to acquire professional skills.

Q:  What is your legal background?

A:  I graduated from Georgetown University Law Center in 1992. Ever since then, I have been the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a job I love very much. I did minor amounts of other legal work on a pro bono basis in some spare time.

Q: What is the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC)?

A:  The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. The Center prepares in-depth reports, issues press releases, conducts briefings for journalists, and serves as a resource to those working on this issue.

Q:  What is the mission/purpose of the DPIC?

A:  In 1972, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote about the death penalty in
Furman v. Georgia: "The question with which we must deal is not whether a substantial proportion of American citizens would today, if polled, opine that capital punishment is barbarously cruel, but whether they would find it to be so in light of all information presently available." DPIC's goal is to enlighten the public debate about the death penalty with the critical information about how this punishment works in practice.

Our research and analysis have found much that is wrong with the way the death penalty is applied in this country. From that perspective, we have challenged the death penalty, and we have found that others become critics when they know all the facts. We do not have a position on the death penalty in theory, but we have certainly found it wanting in practice.

Q:  How did the idea for the DPIC come about and what were its beginnings?

A:  DPIC began at a time when the death penalty was immensely popular and the debate on this issue was polarized between those who supported it and those who found it to be morally wrong. In 1990, a group of people, who now constitute DPIC's Board of Directors, believed that more progress could be made on this issue by educating the public about the glaring injustices that existed with the death penalty in practice.

Our focus from the start has been less on individual executions and moral statements, and more on practical problems. Our goal is to find common ground with those who believe in capital punishment, but who nevertheless are disturbed about how it is being applied. From the beginning, DPIC has sought to utilize "new voices" in this debate, so that criticism of the death penalty could be heard and real change could result.

Q:  How are the research and analysis conducted? Who does it?

A:  DPIC has a full-time staff of three people plus an active Board of Directors, including leading death penalty experts from around the country. We monitor news reports and legal cases constantly. We receive draft copies of future reports and information about important cases in their early stages. In some instances, DPIC conducts its own research, for example, by commissioning public opinion polls, or by tracking the number of people from death row who have been exonerated.

In other instances, we utilize the research of experts in the field, such as a race and the death penalty study conducted by Professor David Baldus of the University of Iowa. We always submit our research to experts for review of its accuracy and for its ability to communicate an issue to the public. As Executive Director, I am chiefly responsible for writing the reports that illustrate our findings.

Q:  What has the DPIC found to be the injustices in the application of the death penalty?

A:  The most critical problem that DPIC has found in its analysis of the death penalty in the U.S. is the number of mistakes that have been made resulting in wrongful convictions. Over 100 people have been exonerated and freed from death row since 1973. In many cases, the mistakes were not discovered by the system working well, but were the result of outside investigations through DNA testing, research by journalists and journalism students, or by volunteer lawyers who agreed to review a case near the end of the appeals process.

DPIC has also observed a consistent pattern of racial bias in the application of the death penalty. In study after study, the conclusion of researchers has been that a defendant is more likely to receive the death penalty if his victim was white than if the victim was black. Other forms of racial bias have also emerged.

The system of representation afforded to indigent defendants facing the death penalty has been woefully inadequate, both at the trial level and for appeals. Often, people receive the death penalty not for the worst crimes, but because they were given the worst lawyers.

Economics and race, combined with significant geographic disparities in the application of the death penalty, make for an arbitrary system. As a public policy matter, a government program plagued by so many mistakes and infected with such biases and arbitrariness should be stopped, and at least studied. In addition, this program is enormously expensive, costing far more than its alternative-- sentences of life without parole. Moreover, the public has shown increasing willingness to accept life without parole sentences instead of capital punishment.

Internationally, the U.S. is becoming more isolated in its use of the death penalty, especially when applied to juvenile offenders. All of these factors represent the "costs" of the death penalty, which detract resources and attention away from more effective ways of making society safer.

Q:  Does DPIC support a moratorium at the state level of government? At the federal level?

A:  Since DPIC's role is to educate the public and to offer information about the death penalty, we do not take a position on particular pieces of legislation. Nevertheless, we would agree that the problems of frequent mistakes, racial bias, inadequate representation, and the arbitrary application of the death penalty are so serious as to warrant a halt to all executions. The risk of error and unfair application are too great to continue with the status quo.

The death penalty system should be thoroughly reviewed on a state and national basis. As a matter of justice and good public policy, it seems to follow that if these problems cannot be adequately remedied, than the death penalty should be stopped altogether.

Q:  As you say, DPIC points out the problems/injustices with the death penalty. What does it do to help solve those problems?

A:  When reviewing death penalty issues, DPIC usually offers an analysis of the root causes of the problems it finds and possible remedies to these problems. Frequently, the reforms will be ones suggested by experts who have studied these issues. In making the case for changes in the death penalty, DPIC seeks the voices of those who may have supported the death penalty in the past, but who are now troubled by the way it is practiced.

In discussing the cases of people who have been exonerated and freed from death row, for example, DPIC will also try to explain how these people were wrongly convicted in the first place. We would highlight suggestions made by such groups as the American Bar Association, the Constitution Project, or the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment about ways to avoid these errors in the future.

Similarly, when discussing the quality of representation in capital cases, we would point to standards of experience for attorneys handling death penalty cases, the importance of having adequate pay and resources available for the defense, and the role of an independent appointing authority in selecting who will defend death penalty cases.

Another area of concern regarding the death penalty is the presence of racial bias. Although this problem can seem intractable, legislation such as the Racial Justice Act, which would allow statistical studies of race to be used as evidence of bias, could ameliorate the problem. So, too, the narrowing of the discretion available in death penalty cases so that only the truly "worst of the worst" cases were pursued capitally, would go a long way toward eliminating race bias.

In addition to working with the media as a way of reaching the public, DPIC has testified at the request of numerous state legislatures, prepared reports for Congressional committees, provided information to death penalty groups and attorneys seeking particular changes, developed an educational curriculum on the death penalty, and maintains an extensive Web site about all aspects of this question.

Q:  How can the death penalty system be thoroughly reviewed? Who would do it?

A:  Congress could commission a national study on the reliability and fairness of the death penalty. The President could also undertake a study on a national basis. The Justice Department has already agreed to a sophisticated study of the racial disparities that exist in cases considered for the federal death penalty. In the meantime, individual states could undertake studies of their own systems. At least ten states have already begun that process.

Those undertaking a thorough review of the death penalty would do well to consider the reviews and recommendations made by such groups as the American Bar Association, which has called for a moratorium on all executions, the Constitution Project, which issued a series of recommendations for reforming the system, and the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment, which prepared a report for Governor George Ryan about the problems and possible remedies for that state.

Q:  Is there a decline in the popularity of the death penalty since the early 1990's?

A:  Support for the death penalty reached a peak of 80% in a Gallup Poll in 1994. That followed a period of rising crime and a conservative shift in politics. Executions increased through the 1990s, but so did revelations about wrongful convictions of innocent people who were freed from death row. Especially with the advent of DNA testing, the public became more skeptical about the accuracy of the death penalty.

In the year 2000, after a series of dramatic releases from death row in Illinois, the Governor there declared a moratorium on executions.

In Congress, a bill called "The Innocence Protection Act" was introduced. The Gallup Poll showed that support for the death penalty had slipped to 65%, its lowest level of support in 20 years. The most recent Gallup Poll shows support at 72%, though other national polls are continuing to show support in the mid-60% range.  Even the Gallup Poll showed that only 52% support the death penalty if respondents are given the alternative of life-without-parole as a sentence.

Q:  Does the war on terrorism affect the popularity of the death penalty?

A:  It is difficult to say what long-term effect the war on terrorism will have on support for the death penalty. Although the most recent Gallup Poll shows some increase in support for the death penalty, it is still below its peak in the early 1990s. It appears from the changes being undertaken by state legislatures, and the public support for such measures as the Supreme Court's banning of the death penalty for the mentally retarded, that the public separates out the issues of ordinary crime and terrorism.

Ordinary crime is subject to our usual system of justice, and it is widely accepted that there are serious flaws in that system's application of the death penalty. Terrorism evokes a reaction of self-defense, which is dealt with in another forum. So far, there has been little attempt to use the death penalty or the ordinary criminal justice system in dealing with the recent acts of terrorism. If the death penalty is abolished in the U.S., it could be that some jurisdictions will seek to continue to reserve it for acts of terrorism.

Q:  Is the decline of the death penalty in the international arena affecting the popular opinion in the US?

A:  The growing international opposition to the death penalty is starting to affect the US in a variety of ways. The international objection to the execution of the mentally retarded was one of the factors recently noted by the U.S. Supreme Court in its decision banning that practice. It is likely that the execution of juvenile offenders will eventually come under that same scrutiny, and on that issue the international opposition is even stronger.

Many countries are particularly concerned about their foreign nationals who are on U.S. death rows. Many of these citizens of other nationalities were not afforded their rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The International Court of Justice at the Hague has ruled that such violations should be ground for halting executions. Such decisions are embarrassing to the United States, and the State Department has had to issue apologies to various countries regarding such executions.

The State Department has also issued guidelines to states for informing foreign nationals of their rights under the Vienna Convention. Individual countries are becoming involved earlier in cases of their citizens, and are providing direct legal assistance to help avoid a pending execution or death penalty trial. Many countries have refused to extradite defendants to the U.S. if the death penalty is an option in the eventual trial.

States and the federal government are having to agree that the death penalty will not be sought in order to bring certain alleged criminals to the U.S. for trial. Germany has recently announced that it cannot even provide information about a defendant already in the U.S. as long as the death penalty is being sought.

The U.S. has always prided itself as a champion of human rights and a leader for the rest of the world. Repeatedly, the U.S. is hearing that it is out of step with almost all respected human rights leaders around the world when it comes to the death penalty. That subtle pressure, combined with the more tangible steps mentioned above, and our strong current need for international cooperation on many issues, is starting to affect our view of the death penalty.

Q:  What are the recommendations from the ABA and the Constitution Project?

A:  Both the American Bar Association and the Constitution Project have developed an extensive analysis of problem areas within the death penalty and the remedies that should be considered in addressing these problems. The ABA is most concerned with the overall fairness of the death penalty, with providing adequate representation for trials and appeals, ensuring that the appellate process is thorough and available to all, and that two specific groups, juvenile offenders and the mentally retarded, are excluded from the death penalty altogether.

The Constitution Project has sought to address areas that have led to wrongful convictions in death penalty cases. Their 18 recommendations underline both the importance of adequate representation, and of improving trial procedures in order to avoid unreliable testimony or the withholding of crucial evidence. The two groups' recommendations can be found on-line at:

"Death without Justice: A Guide for Examining the Administration of the Death Penalty in the United States" - a report by the ABA's Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities that provides protocols for state commissions, legislatures and others considering the fairness of the death penalty. (

"Mandatory Justice: Eighteen Reforms to the Death Penalty" - a report by the Constitution Project's Death Penalty Initiative, a bipartisan committee of death penalty supporters and opponents, detailing specific recommendations that relate to various aspects of capital punishment. (

Q:  If the majority of Americans support the death penalty, is reform likely to happen anyway?

A:  The majority of Americans do not support the death penalty as it presently exists. Some national polls indicate that a majority of people supports a moratorium on all executions. When people in a poll are given an alternative to the death penalty, such as a sentence of life without parole, the majority support for the death penalty slips to either a minority, or about an even split between a life or death sentence. A majority of Americans opposes the death penalty for juvenile offenders or for those with mental retardation.

Most Americans believe that the death penalty is unfairly applied and that there is a high risk that innocent people will be executed. All of these areas call for immediate reform.  But reform is never inevitable. It requires difficult legislative work and convincing people that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

Q:  Do you have an opinion as to whether the state legislatures or the US Supreme Court is more susceptible to implementing reform?

A:  The message from the recent Supreme Court decision regarding mental retardation and the death penalty, Atkins v. Virginia, is that the Court will work in tandem with the democratic process and state legislatures. In 1989, the Court ruled that the execution of the mentally retarded was not constitutionally forbidden, partly because only two states prohibited the practice. This did not support a national consensus that the process was cruel and unusual punishment.

When the Court revisited the issue in 2002, there were 18 states that forbid the practice, a growing national and international opposition to such executions, and more evidence of the danger in allowing such use of the death penalty. This was sufficient to find the practice to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

A similar path may be followed with the execution of juvenile offenders. If more states vote to end such executions, and as national organizations, public opinion, and international opposition weigh in on this issue, the Supreme Court may forbid the death penalty for juvenile offenders. But the Court is unlikely to rule on its own without evidence of a national consensus and movement in state legislatures.

The same may ultimately be true of the death penalty generally. In recent years, the practice of executions has been practiced almost exclusively in the South, and especially in Texas. Such disparities may indicate a national shift away from the death penalty.

Q:  In comparing death penalty states with non death penalty states, what do the statistics show as to the effectiveness of the death penalty?

A:  A New York Times study found that throughout the past 20 years, states with the death penalty have had, collectively, a much higher murder rate than states without the death penalty (48%-101% higher). In particular, that trend continued through the past decade when executions increased considerably.

By one measure, which includes the fact that New York and Kansas adopted the death penalty in the mid-1990s, the gap between the death penalty and non-death penalty states has grown during this period of high use of the death penalty. Although the murder rate dropped across the country, it dropped more in states that did not have the death penalty, thereby casting doubt on any deterrent effect from this punishment.

This is also true in many neighboring states that differ on the death penalty. The state without the death penalty often has a lower murder rate than its neighboring state with the death penalty. Among countries, the U.S. with the death penalty has a considerably higher murder rate than our European allies who do not use the death penalty.

Of course, states without the death penalty have had no instances of sending innocent people to death row, while death penalty states have had 102 exonerations from death row since 1973.

Q:  What can an individual do if he/she wants to support reform of the death penalty?

A:  Much of the change that will occur on the death penalty for the near future will occur at the state level. In almost every state, there is at least one organization working to change the death penalty. Some of those organizations can be found on DPIC's Web site, or by contacting one of the national membership organizations, such as the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Amnesty International, or the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project.

There is one piece of national legislation under consideration, The Innocence Protection Act. This bill, which would enhance the opportunities for DNA testing and improve the system of representation for those facing the death penalty, has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is awaiting action in the House of Representatives. The Justice Project is directing support for this bill.

Churches, schools, and other organizations present opportunities for discussing the death penalty. The major organizations have speakers available for events. DPIC also has an educational curriculum on-line, which is excellent for high school and college students. It can be accessed at:

Q:  Is there anything else you would like to add?

A:  International opposition to the death penalty is continuing to grow. The human rights leaders of the world are particularly concerned about the U.S.'s seeming intransigence on the execution of juvenile offenders. The U.S. could either become more isolated on this issue, or it could seize the opportunity to form firmer alliances with our allies by making changes on the death penalty. The cooperation and good will generated by this gesture could be used to precipitate change in other areas of concern to the U.S. Resistance to any movement on the death penalty is costing the U.S. in many ways on an international level, yet we are reaping very little, if any, reward from this practice.


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