It was 1 a.m. July 13, 1984, when Michael 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 daughters out of the Florida State Prison’s death row, their pleas echoed.
“They just kept crying, ‘Please don’t kill my Daddy,’” recalls Radelet, a CU Boulder sociology professor. “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.”
Radelet’s research, dating to the 1970s, was among the first to show innocent people sometimes get executed and that race plays a key role in determining who lands on death row. Through 50 “last visits” with inmates (including infamous serial killer Ted Bundy) in the hours before their execution, he has also illuminated life inside death row and the toll capital punishment leaves behind.
Twelve years before Washington’s execution, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that death penalty statutes as written in most states failed to provide clear standards on who got the death penalty and what constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” and were, thus, unconstitutional.
“A number of people thought we would never see another execution again in the United States,” recalls Radelet, a CU faculty member since 2001.
But soon, states began to recraft their statutes to try to meet the court’s objections, and the death penalty was revived.
According to a data set Radelet has compiled, executioners have put 1,532 people to death since in the U.S., including 17 in 2020 alone — 10 under the direction of the federal government. Today there are 2,500 people on America’s death rows.
At least 185 wrongly convicted people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death. And, according to his own research originally published in 1987, at least 23 innocent people were executed in the U.S. between 1905 and 1974.
Then, there is the race issue.
Since 1981, when Radelet first showed 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 confirmed this finding. In one, 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.
Thanks in part to Radelet’s 100 research papers and dozens of testimonies, lawmakers have begun to turn against the death penalty. This includes Colorado, which in 2020 became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty.
His work has not gone unnoticed. The nation’s largest anti-death penalty organization recently honored Radelet for a lifetime of research examining the true societal costs of capital punishment.
“We are in a position to believe that many of us will see total abolition of the death penalty in our lifetimes.”
Radelet tuned in virtually, accepting the Death Penalty Focus Abolition Award with a statement that seemed impossible for so many years: “We are in a position to believe that many of us will see total abolition of the death penalty in our lifetimes,” he said.
In all, 10 U.S. states abolished the death penalty in the 2000s, and 142 countries have banned the practice. In 2019, California — home to the country’s largest death row — put a moratorium on capital punishment. And many believe President Joe Biden will, at minimum, commute existing federal death sentences to life.
Radelet, who retires from teaching this year, has played no small role in driving that progress.
Seated in his office, clutching a hand-written goodbye letter Bundy wrote to him before he went to the electric chair, Radelet likens his last visits to hospice work. In their final hours, he says, even a convicted murderer deserves the grace of a listening ear.
Some have accused him 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.”
Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi