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Remarks by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter at the National Symposium on the Modern Death Penalty in America

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Thank you all. My overwhelming feeling right now is one of both gratitude and welcome to you. We are delighted to have you at The Carter Center. You remember that you were here 13 years ago. The Carter Center has now been here about 32 years since I left the White House. We stay quite busy here, and I have a good life as a former president. As a matter of fact, I told a group yesterday morning, that one of my favorite cartoons in New Yorker magazine is this little boy looking up at his father and he says, "Daddy when I grow up, I want to be a former President." Well, there are a lot of benefits from that.

Yesterday and Sunday, we had here an assembly of top leaders from both China and the United States to follow up on the normalization that Deng Xiao Ping and I effectuated the first day of January 1979. Next year will be the 35th year of normal diplomatic relations between our two countries. And they have now gone from here over to Emory University, one of our partners, to continue that on a more academic basis.

This morning I had a meeting with my staff, who are on their way back to Syria again. The Carter Center plays a very important and vital role in trying to bring peace to the Middle East. We have a full time office and have had for 30 years or so in Jerusalem, in Ramallah in the West Bank, and also in Gaza, and we deal with the Syrian issue as well, working very closely with Kofi Annan earlier and now Lakhdar Brahimi, who officially represents the United Nations and Arab League in trying to bring peace to Syria.

Day after tomorrow, I'll be leaving for Nepal. The Carter Center began the process of monitoring elections in the world about 25 years ago, and now there are a lot of other groups that do this. Nepal will be our 95th election that The Carter Center has monitored or observed, all of them troubled elections. We never go into a country unless the ruling party and major opposition parties invite us in, and unless they have rules and regulations under constitutional laws that would permit them to have honest and fair elections.

The other thing is, I'm writing a book right now on what we consider at The Carter Center to be the most prevalent, unaddressed, and horrendous human rights abuse on earth, and that is the persecution and abuse of women and girls. This is an abomination in our own country and around the world, and that will be my next book. Part of that book that I am writing is to lay part of the blame on religious leaders who ordain that women are not equal in the eyes of God and also the prevalence of violence even within the most advanced countries on earth. The United States is almost constantly at war for instance and another element of violence is that will still have a death penalty in the United States. And so I just basically copied out a few paragraphs from my book about women's rights concerning the death penalty.

The Carter Center has for many years taken a firm stand against capital punishment altogether, and here I know that's not quite what the ABA does. I don't know if I'm preaching to the choir or not. I'm assuming from the comments I heard from Jim and also Jenny that I'm not speaking to an alien group. So let me just say first of all that we do take a firm stand against the capital punishment altogether. As Jim pointed out, I think Rosalynn and I quite regularly send letters from me and her, sometimes to the news media involved, to governors who are officiating over a state where an execution is about to be taking place. And unknown in the United States, we do this quite regularly to foreign countries as well. When there is a gross example of a death penalty being implemented in other countries where it still exists, then we send letters and sometimes make public statements condemning the death penalty there. In a case before the Supreme Court, when I was governor -- 1972 Furman vs. Georgia-the justices issued a de facto moratorium on capital punishment throughout the United States because there were no clear and consistent legal grounds for its imposition. An important question then was whether a death penalty was a violation of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. And when all the states complied with the new standards, while I was still governor, the court then permitted resumption of executions in 1976, as a result of Greg vs. Georgia. That was when I was elected President of the United States, as you know. So, I personally, Rosalynn, and my state of Georgia have been deeply involved in this question for many, many years.

As governor, I called for life without parole as an alternative to executions. And there were just three executions in the United States while I held public office as governor and as president-one in 1977 and two in 1979. But since then, there have been 1,351 executions in the United States. As you probably all know, the United States is the only country in NATO or North America that still executes its citizens. And the only country in all of Europe is Belarus. And the only country in this hemisphere is Suriname. In fact, the charter of the European Union specifically prohibits the death penalty among any of its members; if a country wants to become a member of the European Union, they have to abolish the death penalty as a prerequisite.

Even with a strongly conservative U.S. Supreme Court on most issues, there have been some encouraging signs that decisions made in other Western democracies and in our own country are changing American public opinion and now having an effect. In 2002, the court ruled that a mentally retarded person could not be executed. In 2005, they ruled that the death penalty was not permitted for criminals under the age of 18, that no more children could be executed. And in 2008, it was prohibited for rape unless a death was involved. Unfortunately, as you know, individual states are still permitted to define mental retardation, and some of them, including Georgia, make this almost legally impossible. In Georgia, in a case now being heard, the defendant has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is not mentally impaired. And that would be hard for me to do if the jury was maybe bipartisan in nature.

It's clear that there are overwhelming ethical, financial, and religious reasons to abolish this brutal and irrevocable punishment. Although the majority of Americans express support for the death penalty, down now to about 60 percent, if asked simply if they want to abolish it altogether, definitive recent polls show that when given a choice, only 33 percent of Americans would choose the death penalty for murder, while 61 percent of Americans would prefer a punishment other than the death penalty. The highest number, 39 percent, espouse a penalty of life imprisonment without parole with restitution for the victims, and also just 1 percent of police chiefs in America believed that expanding the death penalty would reduce violent crimes. This change in public opinion is suddenly restricting capital punishment in state legislatures and in federal courts.

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