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"How Do We Build A Mass Movement to Reverse Runaway Inequality?" with Les Leopold, author of "Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice,"May 22, 2016, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York, 860 11th Ave. (Between 58th and 59th), New York City. Between The Lines' Scott Harris and Richard Hill moderated this workshop. Listen to the audio/slideshows and more from this workshop.
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Posted April 11, 2012
Interview with Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
On April 5, the Connecticut Senate voted 20-16 to abolish the death penalty. It is expected to pass in the House and Gov. Dannel Malloy has promised to sign the measure. If as expected the bill becomes law, Connecticut would join 16 other states and the District of Columbia in ending the death penalty, and be the fifth in the last five years to do so. (UPDATE: Connecticut has become the 17th state to repeal the death penalty, with lawmakers voting 86-62 on the measure after a marathon debate that stretched into the night and revived memories of some of the state's most heinous crimes. Gov. Dannel Malloy has said he will sign the bill, which passed the House on Wednesday night, six days after the Senate approved it. The bill replaces capital punishment with life in prison without the possibility of parole, but it only applies to future cases and has no effect on the 11 men on death row in Connecticut. - LA Times)
Opponents of capital punishment argue that its use is discriminatory by race and judicial district, with those who were convicted of killing whites more likely to be sentenced to death than those convicted of killing African-Americans or Latinos. Critics also note that one district attorney in Waterbury prosecuted about half the death penalty cases in the entire state. Unlike many other states abolishing the death penalty, Connecticut's legislation is prospective not retrospective, meaning that if the bill becomes law, the status of 11 men currently on death row will not change.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. He describes the political landscape for abolition and explains that both death sentences and executions are down sharply across the nation, even as a majority of Americans continue to support the death penalty.
RICHARD DIETER: There has been a steady decrease in the use of the death penalty in the past decade. Death sentences have dropped about 75 percent; we're down to 78 last year compared to about 300 a year in the '90s. Executions have also dropped by more than half; there were 98 executions at the end of the 1990s and last year there were 43. This is also reflected in the size of death row, which is now down to about 3,100 inmates. So by all the usual measures, including the number of states that retain the death penalty, the death penalty is being used less and being reconsidered by many states.
BETWEEN THE LINES: And Texas is in that category, too, which used to have a phenomenally high number of executions. But that was before the state had the option of a life sentence without the possibility of release. Do you think there's a connection?
RICHARD DIETER: It seems to be; the timing is very clear. They adopted life without parole -- they were the last death penalty state to do so, in 2005. And so crimes committed after that would be eligible for life without parole for the first time. And that's when the death sentences have dropped, from more than 40 in one year to 8 last year. So a considerable drop. Other states also have life without parole; all the death penalty states have life without parole as an alternative sentence. So we're seeing more use of that, coupled with the fact that jurors recognize that the death sentence carries a risk of new information being revealed that might upset a conviction years later.
BETWEEN THE LINES: If Connecticut becomes the 17th state to abolish the death penalty, it'll be only one of two that made it prospective, right? Meaning only those convicted after it passes will get life without parole, and the 11 men on death row will stay there until if and when they're executed.
RICHARD DIETER: Illinois' law was also prospective, but the governor commuted the death sentences when he signed the law. The passing of prospective laws generally is not unusual; that's how most laws affect future situations, whether it be taxes or even criminal penalties. But in the death penalty world it's usually, often, a decision to either have it or not have it, and that's why the governor in Illinois decided if he was going to sign the law he would also commute the sentences. But that hasn't happened in New Mexico; the inmates remain on death row, and the governor has said she has no intention of commuting the sentences. She favors the death penalty.
BETWEEN THE LINES: The other thing Connecticut Democrats did to get a majority in the Senate was say that those sentenced to life without release will exist in the same conditions as death row prisoners -- isolated, in solitary confinement in their cells 22 hours a day, with other restrictions. Meanwhile, 57 other inmates already sentenced to life without parole are in general population in a Connecticut prison, so there seems to be some unequal treatment.
RICHARD DIETER: The death penalty, in theory at least, picks not just those eligible for life but the worst of the worst, and those people need special segregation from the rest of the population and special protection for the guards and so for those people -- the ones who would have been sentenced to death, not just those who get life -- there's this need for this special form of retribution, I guess.
BETWEEN THE LINES: The latest poll of Connecticut residents on the issue showed that 62 percent are in favor of the death penalty, but it didn't ask about the option of life without release. Do you know what the sentiment is nationally?
RICHARD DIETER: You know, very close. The latest Gallup Poll, which just asked the same question -- yes or no on the death penalty -- was 61 percent in support of the death penalty. But Gallup occasionally also asks to compare life without parole with the death penalty and then it's about an even 48 percent each. So people want to hear that form of punishment, and maybe even something extra, such as what Connecticut added, and then they're willing to let the death penalty go, or at least close to a majority are. But if you just ask about the death penalty, most people don't have a moral objection to it, that is to say, over 60 percent. But what we're seeing is that states are -- five now in five years, if Connecticut passes -- abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with life without parole. They feel that that is sufficient and avoids these risks of mistakes and unfairness when it comes to life and death. So it's a different question when you give some alternatives, which is what legislators had before them and what jurors have before them, so I think that's more the proper question.
BETWEEN THE LINES: The argument against the death penalty used to be a purely moral one, but more recently abolitionists have been giving an economic argument -- that because of the almost never-ending appeals, death row inmates often stay on death row for decades. Was that the main argument in these four other states that abolished the death penalty in the past five years?
RICHARD DIETER: Hard to say main, but it was certainly part of the discussion in all of those states. The governor of New Mexico, Gov. Richardson, said he was on the fence, but that cost was really a new and important argument for him. The Illinois bill not only abolished the death penalty, but established that money from a fund that used to go to the death penalty would go to fighting crime. So, it's not just cost but cost and lack of any result or product or benefit to society.
Learn more about the Death Penalty Information Center at www.deathpenaltyinfo.org.