Bryan Stevenson Talks to Oprah About Why We Need to Abolish the Death Penalty


The question of the death penalty is not, “Do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit?”  In an interview with Oprah Winfrey for SuperSoul Sunday, EJI director Bryan Stevenson said, “I think the threshold question is, ‘Do we deserve to kill?'”

The answer, he told Oprah, is no, because our capital punishment system is profoundly broken.  “We have a system of justice that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” Stevenson said.  “Wealth–not culpability–shapes outcomes.”

The increase in the jail and prison population from 300,000 to 2.3 million in the past 40 years has not only created unprecedented overcrowding and an explosion in costs.  It also means we have never before had as many innocent people in jails and prisons as we have right now.  “We’ve had 154 people who were sentenced to death get exonerated, proved innocent,” Stevenson said.  “That means for every nine people we’ve executed in this country, one innocent person has been proved innocent.  It’s a shocking rate of error.”

Our death penalty is also very racially skewed.  “You’re dramatically more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is Black; and if the defendant is Black and the victim is white, then it’s a much greater chance of getting the death penalty.”

“It’s a way in which we actually create a world where people can legitimately say Black lives don’t matter,” he told Oprah.  “Because we don’t protect people who are poor and we don’t protect people of color in the same way we protect other people.”  Abolishing the death penalty would “liberate us from some of the worst parts of our history,” he explained.  “You can’t be in counties and communities where people have been lynched and threatened and menaced and terrorized, and then have a person of color taken to death row.”

We have alternatives to executing people in this country, so the death penalty “really isn’t about what people deserve; it’s about us.”