The Role of Race, Poverty, Intellectual Disability, and Mental Illness in the Decline of the Death Penalty

Stephen B. Bright *

Capital punishment is a difficult and sensitive topic because it involves terrible tragedies, the murder of innocent people, loss and suffering, and the passions of the moment. It is used in only a very small percentage of cases in which it could be imposed and is currently in decline. Six states have recently abandoned it, and the number of death sentences imposed in the country decreased from over 300 per year in the mid-1990s to less than eighty in the last several years.[1] And so it is appropriate for us to ask whether death remains an appropriate punishment in a modern society, whether it is fairly carried out without race and poverty influencing who dies, and whether it is imposed only upon the most incorrigible offenders who commit the most heinous crimes.

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    President and Senior Counsel, Southern Center for Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia; Harvey Karp Visiting Lecturer, Yale Law School. The author’s curriculum vitae and publications are available at www.law.yale.edu/faculty/SBright.htm.

This essay was adapted from the keynote address given at Allen Chair Symposium, on October 24, 2014, at the University of Richmond School of Law. Parts of this essay and speech have been previously presented by Professor Bright, including at the United Nations Headquarters on April 24, 2014.

[1].    Death Penalty Trends, Amnesty Int’l, http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issu es/death-penalty/us-death-penalty-facts/death-penalty-trends (last visited Feb. 27, 2015).