By Published: April 8, 2021

On the eve of his retirement, sociology Professor Michael Radelet says ‘yes’

At a star-studded gala kicked off by California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the nation’s largest anti-death penalty organization recently honored Sociology Professor Michael Radelet for a lifetime of research examining the true societal costs of capital punishment.

Radelet Zoomed in, along with thousands of others from across the country, accepting the Death Penalty Focus Abolition Award with a statement that a few years ago he never dreamed he’d make.

Michael Radelet

Michael Radelet holds up a copy of his book, The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado. Photo by Casey Cass.

“We are in a position to believe that many of us will see total abolition of the death penalty in our lifetimes,” said Radelet, who will retire from teaching this year to focus entirely on research and advocacy. “We are in the 15th round of a long fight, and the final punch of knocking out the executioner is about to come.”

The award marks the latest highlight of a career in which  Radelet has played no small role in making that progress a reality. 

His research, dating back to the late 1970s, was among the first to show that the innocent do, in fact, sometimes get executed, and that race plays a key role in determining who lands on death row. Through more than 50 “last visits” with inmates (including infamous serial killer Ted Bundy) in the hours before their execution, he has shone a unique light on life inside death row, and the toll capital punishment leaves on families and society.

His 100 research papers and dozens of testimonies have swayed the opinions of lawmakers, including those in Colorado, which one year ago became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty.

And since 2001, he’s taught one of the most popular classes on campus, “The Death Penalty in America,” hosting guest lectures from death penalty prosecutors and defense attorneys, exonerated inmates and families of murder victims alike in hopes of enabling students to make up their own mind about the controversial subject.

“There has never been an empty seat in my class,” he says proudly, seated in his office, as he begins to pack up.

It has, as he puts it, been a wild ride.

The return of the death penalty

It was 1 a.m. on July 13, 1984, when  Radelet made the decision to publicly denounce the death penalty. He’d just said goodbye to David Washington, a convicted triple-murderer who died  in the electric chair six hours later. As he accompanied Washington’s wife and two young daughters out of the Florida State Prison’s death row, their pleas began to echo through the hallways.

“They just kept crying ‘Please don’t kill my Daddy,’” he recalls. “That’s when I first came to realize that in many ways, the death penalty punishes the family and society as much as the inmate.”

Just 12 years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that, as written, death penalty statutes in most states constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” 

“A number of people thought we would never see another execution again in the United States,” recalls Radelet.

But soon states began to recraft their statutes.

On Jan. 17, 1977, in a highly publicized firing squad execution of Gary Gilmore, the death penalty was revived, and support began to rise.

 Radelet, who taught sociology at University of Florida for 20 years  before joining the CU Boulder faculty in 2001, began to compile a massive data set of death sentences and executions in the U.S. 

Today, he’s still at it: “Some people collect stamps,” he says, with a shrug and his trademark wry wit. “What can I say.”

In my discipline, nobody is a river, you are just a little stream flowing into a lake and you never know what your true impact really is. I’m just happy to have the opportunity to have an impact at all."

The numbers are chilling: 

Since 1972, executioners have put 1,532 people to death in the United States, including 17 in 2020 alone—10 under the direction of the federal government. The spike of federal executions in the past year has fueled calls for incoming President Joe Biden to do away with the federal death penalty.

Today there are some 2,500 people on America’s death rows, including 53 women. Since 1972, at least 185 wrongly convicted people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death, several of whom have spoken in Radelet’s classes.

According to his own research, originally published in 1987, at least 23 innocent people were executed in the United States between 1905-1974, and data suggests that number has continued to grow.  For every nine people executed in the past 40 years, one person sentenced to death has been released because of innocence.

The increasing revelation of such blunders, some established via DNA testing, has helped nudge 142 countries around the globe to ban the practice, and sway conservative lawmakers at home. Ten states have abolished the death penalty in the 2000’s.

“People have concerns about the power of big government,” says Radelet, echoing sentiments that an institution that has trouble fixing potholes and delivering mail shouldn’t be trusted to determine who lives or dies. “You shouldn’t be making God-like decisions if you  don’t have God-like skills..”

Racial underpinnings

Then, there is the race issue.

In one seminal study of Florida cases, published in 1981,  Radelet showed for the first time that those accused of murdering white victims are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murder black victims. Study after study has since confirmed this finding, including one in 2017 in Oklahoma, in which Radelet found that cases with a white female victim were 10 times more likely to result in a death sentence than similar homicides  with a male victim of color. 

In many jurisdictions, jurors  are also more likely to hand down a death sentence in cases with a black defendant than in similar cases with a  white defendant. And death sentences are often handed down arbitrarily, based largely on prosecutor discretion, he found. “It’s sort of the luck of the draw.”

Michael Radelet

Michael Radelet. Photo by Casey Cass.

Capital punishment, he notes, is also extremely expensive, with endless appeals paid for by taxpayers. 

California alone, since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, has spent $5 billion to fund a system that has carried out 13 executions. Today California has the largest death row in the country, but in 2019 Governor Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions and ordered the dismantling of the death chamber at San Quentin State Prison.

“That money could have been better used to solve unsolved rapes and murders and invest in strategies to decrease crime, support victims and survivors, and decrease recidivism,” said Newsom during the Death Penalty Focus awards ceremony in February. 

Looking to the future

Clutching a hand-written goodbye letter Bundy wrote to him in the hours before he went to the electric chair,  Radelet likens his last visits with inmates to hospice work. In their final hours, he says, even a convicted murderer deserves the grace of a listening ear.

Some have accused him over the years of sympathizing with criminals. He disagrees. “You don’t oppose the death penalty because these guys are all great citizens. You oppose it because of what it does to society.”

Others have suggested he is insensitive to murder victims’ families.

But through an alliance with Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, he and his students have worked for years to assist families in cases where the murder of their loved one remains unsolved.

“What all families want is closure,” he says. “Executing some guy 20 years after the murder doesn’t necessarily accomplish that.”

At a minimum, Radelet is confident  that Biden will order no executions under the federal death penalty during his term, and hopeful that he will commute existing federal death sentences to life. It is also conceivable the president will take a firmer stand, following shifting public opinion (60% of Americans now favor life imprisonment over the death penalty) and supporting proposed legislation to abolish the federal death penalty for good.

Meanwhile, Radelet plans to keep doing research. And students he mentored decades ago are now doing their own.

“It is one thing for us to talk anecdotally about whether the death penalty is racist or biased or flawed. He actually demonstrated it,” said Stacy Mallicoat, a former student who is now a  professor and researcher in the criminal justice department at California State University Fullerton. “He had a huge impact in shaping my career.”

Asked if he’s proud of his legacy, Radelet says it’s too early to tell. 

“In my discipline, nobody is a river, you are just a little stream flowing into a lake and you never know what your true impact really is. I’m just happy to have the opportunity to have an impact at all.”