Ngozi Ndulue 0:02

Hello, and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. My name is Ngozi Ndulue, I’m the Senior Director of Research and Special Projects at the Death Penalty Information Center. Today I am joined by Gretchen Engel from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. We will be discussing two reports that were released by our organizations recently about the role of race in the administration of the death penalty. Gretchen Engel joined the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in 1992, after graduating from Northeastern University School of Law and interning at the Southern Center for Human Rights in the Alabama Resource Center. Gretchen grew up largely in the Great Lakes region and received her B.A. from Oberlin College. In 2004, she received the Paul Green Award from the North Carolina ACLU Legal Foundation for her work against the death penalty. On September 15, the Death Penalty Information Center released its latest report about the role of race and death penalty, Enduring Injustice: The Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the United States Death Penalty. On October 5, the CDPL released their Racist Roots Project, which is a comprehensive website that explores the history and present day realities of the North Carolina death penalty to expose deep ties to racism and white supremacy. Since we released twin reports within a short time of each other, we thought that it would be a great time to have a conversation about why we released these reports, the major points that we want people to take away, and how the understanding of the role of race and the death penalty will affect death penalty litigation and our understanding of the death penalty for generations to come. Thank you, Gretchen for joining us.

Gretchen Engel 1:52

Oh, thank you so much Ngozi, it’s really a pleasure to be on DPIC’s podcast. DPIC does such wonderful work all over the country, and it’s such a support to organizations like mine.

Ngozi Ndulue 2:04

Thank you for that and we’re really, really excited to talk about your project and just the historical moment we are having, this kind of national reckoning on racial justice, and what contribution our project and your project and our report are going to have on that moment. So I want us to dig in from the beginning here. So could you tell us more about the content of your project? Because it is more than just one piece, one document, and it really is kind of a comprehensive and multimedia experience. Can you tell us what it is about and how it came about?

Gretchen Engel 2:46

Sure, excited to do that. I think when we initially conceived of doing some kind of report on race and the death penalty, we were thinking about it in more narrow terms and I’m so happy with how our final product really was so much more ambitious than anything else we’ve ever done. And part of the key to that was inviting just a stellar group of contributors—people that are nationally known like Sherrilyn Ifill and Jin Hee Lee from LDF, Clint Smith from The Atlantic, recognized historians Seth Kotch and Tim Tyson—to share their perspectives. So we have this really incredible group of contributors that are not just lawyers and writers but also artists who are coming together and reflecting on the history of the death penalty’s entanglement with race in this country, going back to the time of slavery. We were really inspired by the “1619 Project” that the New York Times did, and that contributor model was something that we happily copied from them—of bringing in folks whose perspective we might not have just as litigators at CDPL. And to be honest, you know, our initial impetus for this, over a year before we actually launched the project, was to support the Racial Justice Act litigation in North Carolina Court. And at that time, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to persuade our Supreme Court to allow us to go forward with claims under the Racial Justice Act, which was enacted in 2009, but then, repealed by a subsequent legislature. So we thought, well, we want this project to be launched because it tells the truth that will either support litigation, or it will really be about shaming our courts and the focus will be strictly on public education. But as it happened, we’ve had success with the RJA cases and so now we have these things working in tandem. And I think the urgency of that, as you alluded to, with recent events—the public execution of George Floyd—it’s just added more urgency to a real time of reckoning with our racist past. We have a task force for racial equity in North Carolina that was set up just within weeks of the killing of George Floyd and one of the things we’re trying to bring into that task force’s conversation is the historical roots of racism in the death penalty that just can never be pulled apart. So really, this project—its goal is abolition. And that’s really what we’re hoping for. At this moment, we’re trying to take what is a web-based project from the web out into the community and into the world, and so it’s so great to be able to talk about it with your listeners today.

Ngozi Ndulue 6:03

I appreciate that. I really hear a lot of resonance with the work that you’re doing from kind of a litigation and advocacy standpoint, and the work that we’re doing from kind of an education and analysis and understanding standpoint and it’s interesting that there’s so much overlap. So I’ve been at the Death Penalty Information Center for two years, and this report was already bubbling up, this was already going to be a big next project and what we saw was that we had done a report about the death penalty, and the effect of race on the administration of the death penalty in 1998, very early in the history of the Death Penalty Information Center. And since then, we’ve been doing all sorts of analysis about trends and about individual cases that discuss the role of race in the way that justice was being administered, discuss the statistics about who’s on death row, how people of color are overrepresented, how racial slurs are still being used, animal references, etc. But we wanted to bring that all together.

And we also wanted to think about how much has changed since that more than 20 years ago, when that report was issued, and how much has really stayed the same. As you know, depressingly, so much has stayed the same from the last 20 years and the last few hundred years of race and the death penalty.

Gretchen Engel 7:39


Ngozi Ndulue 7:39

Right, that’s that issue. And I think we’re really going to get to dive in to the importance of history. And I think that that’s something that we both really spend some time in and that is really important—that link between the way that the death penalty is being used today, and the United States history of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow segregation. We talk about that through a national lens with examples of mob violence in the 1920s, lynchings, and the way that the specter of lynching really worked hand-in-hand with the legal death penalty in the early 20th century. And then how the shadow of lynching continues to stay with us today, where we see studies that can link the practices—modern day practices—to places where lynchings were more common — about the failure to enforce hate crimes laws. States with higher lynching numbers are also states that have generally higher numbers of death sentences and executions. Could you talk a little bit about what that examination of history told you about the way that the death penalty has been used, and it continues to be used, in North Carolina?

Gretchen Engel 9:02

Sure. We divided our project into four historical periods. We have an introduction by Henderson Hill, who is a very renowned attorney. I’m sure many of our listeners know who he is. He most recently represented Curtis Flowers in Mississippi and his retrial and freedom. But then we divided it into four historical periods. So we have slavery, lynching and the era of public hangings, which basically goes from 1619 to 1910, followed by Jim Crow and the birth of the state-run death penalty, which was 1910 to 1961. The backlash of civil rights and creation of the so-called modern death penalty from ‘61 to 1990. And then last is the death penalty in the age of mass incarceration: 1990 to the present. What we really saw was just the through line of the same dehumanizing of black people, the same violence against black bodies, that that is just consistent through our history, and it’s so visually powerful. I think many of us, you know, sort of going into writing about these topics and inviting our contributors and thinking about how we wanted to organize the project—I think a lot of us thought, well, we kind of know this history, but when you really see it all together, and you see something like—you, know our Chief Justice was the first state Supreme Court Chief Justice following George Floyd’s execution to come out and give a public statement about the need for the courts to do better, and the courts’ complicity in racial bias in the entire system. So, there’s this amazing photo of her where she’s talking about her black son, and saying, in our courts, African Americans are more harshly treated more severely punished and more likely to be presumed guilty. She is this African American woman, and she’s standing in front of our former Chief Justice Ruffin, who wrote an opinion more than 100 years ago upholding the right of a slave owner to beat and maim and kill an enslaved person as a way of maintaining white supremacy, and so it’s so right there in your face. And I think when we looked at the comparison, as you noted, in the animal imagery that was used in headlines in the 1920s, and was used in closing arguments in the 1990s, or even in horrific postings to a local newspaper, regarding the capital trial of Andrew Ramseur in 2010, when people were suggesting that that “monkey be hung from the nearest street line,” as a message to them. Or the transcript of a juror talking about—as he’s being selected for 1993, I think it is, trial—recalling his older relatives when they used to go out in lynching parties. This isn’t far away, it’s with us today. And it’s, of course, almost a cliche to quote William Faulkner from Requiem for a Nun, right? But “the past is never dead. And it’s not even past.” And that it’s so clear with race and the death penalty,

Ngozi Ndulue 12:40

One of the pieces that you talked about, the power of the visual, right? These symbols of what is going on with race, and the death penalty that you just don’t fully appreciate, without really visually connecting in some way. One of the really powerful pieces for us, and that was one of the inspirations for a part of our report, was a picture of a public hanging, the last public hanging in Kentucky, and how similar it looked to the picture of a lynching, and that was a lynching in Paris, Texas, right? And where the words justice are on the gallows where the lynching occurred, giving it kind of this aura of acceptability of its official status. But really, other than that word, justice, when you look side-by-side—which we have in our report—that lynching which is supposedly, this extralegal vigilante, not a true part of our justice system violence, is identical to what was supported, is supposed to be civilized and accepted as part of our justice system.

And I think that those striking visual moments tell us something about what separates this extralegal violence from legal violence or the official race neutrality of the way that the justice system is supposed to work, the official distance that we have from this history of allowing either mobs or courts to just end the lives of African Americans with impunity. There’s supposed to be distance, and I think that there’s something about those visuals that really collapse that distance in a way that’s more true to reality. One of the things that you have on your project is powerful visuals, but also very powerful words. I was struck by Henderson Hill’s introduction about the death penalty as a confederate monument. Could you talk a little bit about that, and how you see that concept playing out in the current administration of the death penalty?

Gretchen Engel 15:24

That’s so funny, I had just pulled up the Henderson article and was thinking about that very same quote, as you were speaking. He concludes his piece by saying, “When we open our eyes to the history of capital punishment, the conclusion is inescapable, the death penalty is just one more Confederate monument that we must tear down,” thinking about how these images collapse the time, but there’s also a way in which, I guess, we should not be surprised, right? When we think about the US Supreme Court’s decision in Gregg, which is, you know, it’s 1976. But you’ve got some really much older justices on that court, people who were very much alive in the 40s and 50s. The paragraph that I think I read over and didn’t notice, in law school, and even in the early years of practice as a capital defense attorney, is the paragraph in Gregg that talks about how we have to have the death penalty because, otherwise, people will resort to lynch law and vigilante justice. That equivalence of we have to polish up this system and give people something, because otherwise, we can’t expect them not to lynch people. I mean, it’s really kind of a stunning, sort of concession to the more base instincts and the deep, deeply entrenched racism of our country that the court felt constrained. And that it had to uphold the death penalty.

And so I think, as you move forward, it really shouldn’t surprise us that all these kind of hallmarks of state-sanctioned violence that we saw in earlier periods persisted. And then there’s kind of a doubling back; One of the profiles in our project is of a young man and his brother, the Golphins, who were arrested and put on death row for the killing of a couple of law enforcement officers, and this all transpired during a traffic stop in 1997. And I think for many years, we felt like we couldn’t really challenge the narrative of “Here’s a law enforcement officer protecting the community, the blue line that’s standing between chaos and public safety and clearly, these two people, you know, violated that social contract, and so they have to be executed.” But as time has gone by, and as more people have seen footage of police killings of unarmed citizens, you really start to look at that incident and that crime in a very different light. I mean, to the point where, you know, part of what happens is the younger brother was actually a juvenile—so he’s no longer on death row—is being maced by one of the police officers, and he’s saying, “I can’t breathe.” And it’s at that point that his older brother feels like I have to act in order to protect my brother.

And that case was tried in a county that until the 80s, had a sign welcoming the Ku Klux Klan. It was tried by a nearly all-white jury, after the prosecutor asked questions of Black jurors, things like, “Well, how did you feel as a Black person?” and when that same juror had reported to the court that he overheard a couple of white jurors saying that the two defendants never should have made it out of the woods — right, a clear reference to lynching—would have been better to the police and killed them, rather than let them get out of the woods and have a trial. One of the reasons the prosecutor gave for striking that juror was that he had had the temerity to raise that issue and say that he thought that created, in his mind, some due process problems. So there really is a way that this, it’s just so inescapable. I guess that’s the theme that just keeps going on, we’ve tried all these different things, right? And we can’t seem to ever extricate the death penalty from its racist roots, and so for that reason you have to salt the earth and move on to a different way of handling and addressing violent crime in this country.

Ngozi Ndulue 20:14

There’s so much that you said that I’d like to pick up on. Before we leave this specific topic of those tangible Confederate monuments, I want to broaden that and think about how that conversation that we’re having nationally about what role those play in society and then thinking about what role they play in the administration of justice—that we have these actual physical monuments. So in our report, we talked about Caddo Parish, Louisiana, where there are these physical Confederate monuments. The Confederate flag used to hang before in front of their courthouse. They still had a memorial to Confederate soldiers that was right outside the courthouse and Caddo Parish also has a very long history of both imposing the death penalty more than most anywhere else. They made up 5% of the Louisiana’s population, but between 2010 to 2015, generated a third of the state’s death sentences. They also were leading in exonerations, particularly to black men, who were exonerated after spending years on death row: Glenn Ford and Rodricus Crawford and they also had prosecutors who had a history and a pattern of striking Black potential jurors. And they were striking them at a rate that was triple that of other potential jurors and I’m giving this county Caddo Parish as an example, but we see these examples over and over again. I can think of Sherrilyn Ifill’s book, On the Courthouse Lawn that was talking about the Eastern Shore of Maryland and lynchings on the courthouse lawn, and also they were so tied up with the death penalty in Maryland’s history. So thinking about these kind of symbols that are so prevalent that we’re still kind of fighting about today and thinking about how that history is so present today also brings me to that conversation that you began about the United States Supreme Court and where that conversation about a recognition of some of the things that we don’t always say out loud about the death penalty. One: about the that connection between seeing it as a way to protect from the less seemly type of mob violence. Another piece I wanted to bring up about that is this idea that the United States Supreme Court has been hesitant to address the racial bias that is endemic in the death penalty because of the fear of too much justice, right? So when I think about what the Court’s jurisprudence in trying to ignore the role of race in the death penalty, that question about whether the lack of success at the United States Supreme Court of broad challenges to racial bias and the death penalty is really a concern about what will happen to the rest of the justice system. And I really thought as someone from North Carolina who has done so much around the Racial Justice Act, if you can kind of talk about how your project deals with that, as far as that reluctance and that push-pull between recognizing, “Yes, there’s a problem, but oh, my goodness, if we start remedying the problem, too much. It’s—we can’t, we can’t handle it.”

Gretchen Engel 23:56

Right. The US Supreme Court is—almost fun to say—schizophrenic about race. So in Furman, right, when they declare the death penalty unconstitutional, there’s justices who are willing to say, “No, this is clearly racist. Good grief, look at this, you know, we’re using this, it’s being used in the south to kill black men who are accused on very flimsy evidence, oftentimes, of raping white women. And that’s what it’s about.” And then other justices just don’t want to touch that. We’ve seen the Court’s reluctance so often, to deal with race, although more recently, in pretty egregious cases, the Court, including some of its more conservative members, have been willing to take on race discrimination in jury selection. And so you do see a little bit of progress there. To me, when I think about—obviously we need to look at our entire system, we know that it’s not just the death penalty and of course, the the beauty of these two reports coming out at the same time, our project does this deep dive into North Carolina, but what the DPIC Enduring Injustice’s report shows is that this is a systemic problem in many jurisdictions, right? And all the examples that you were talking about in Louisiana and Tennessee and other places. And so we know that we have to address this problem in our entire system. I think what I find is that the death penalty is often the hardest issue for policymakers to take on because of the nature of the crimes. It’s easier to think about, “Well, maybe we could do something about fines and fees, or money bail, or even juveniles, right, who were convicted of serious felonies, seems easier somehow. My position on it is the death penalty is the apex of our system. And it it is the symbol, it is the thing that skews everything in a more punitive direction. And so if you’re not willing to kind of take on the death penalty, it seems very hard to really make progress in these other areas.

Ngozi Ndulue 26:24

I think that’s so important and I think that both of our projects really take a broad view, including when we’re thinking about the modern death penalty, I don’t think we can think or talk about the modern death penalty without talking about mass incarceration, without talking about police violence and there is something to kind of learn from our death penalty experience in the conversation that is being had about how do we end the era of mass incarceration? How do we address laws, policies and practices that really devalue black lives? For a long time, when we were talking about the death penalty, we talk about death as different. And we know that there are important ways in which that is true. But there is this kind of push and pull between our understanding of the operation of race and the death penalty and our understanding of kind of race and the entire legal system and in society as a whole, right? We’re also talking about that that issue that you brought up, right? That specter of interracial sex that is being, you know, was being punished by lynching there in the past. Where there was, there was a whisper of an accusation of a white woman being assaulted by a black man: That was a recipe for a lynch mob, and in the absence of that, a speedy execution. And we still see those dynamics at play today.Pervis Payne, whose current case is a very good example of this—this is a Tennessee case where Pervis Payne was convicted of the murder and rape of a white woman. And there was that idea, and it seems to kind of be an undercurrent of this, that that piece about making sure that this is about sexual assault, despite some very, you know, suspiciously timed finding of any evidence that would have indicated any sexual assault and really very little to say that sexual assault at all even happened, that thread was really important in finding and convicting and sentencing to death Pervis Payne.And also that idea that, in understanding what the dynamics are that are at play in the death penalty, we also are doing something as far as understanding what we need to be doing around broader issues around criminal legal reform. So both in understanding how the death sentences and executions are produced—knowing that for people who have been executed, even though white victims are only half of homicide victims, they’re still 75% of the victims of those in the murders that result in execution. Knowing that the racial disparities based on the race of victim start from the time of arrest, when you’re even less likely to have an arrest, in a case with a black victim. You are much more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is white. And then, that even expands to the point of execution where a recent study showed that the execution rate for white victim cases are 17 times higher than they are for Black victim cases. So knowing that and tying that into that conversation that we’re currently having about what does it mean to say, “Black lives matter?” And how we’re kind of reckoning, I think is so important. Have you seen, since the the release of your report, responses from people who are looking at these issues from kind of a broader lens, then the focus specifically on the death penalty?

Gretchen Engel 30:26

Well, we certainly have contributors who are working on those broader issues. You know, Dawn Blagrove, for example, is the head of Emancipate NC, which is really the organization in North Carolina focusing on an over-policing, over-prosecution, over-punishing, over-incarcerating of Black people in the state. What she and that organization and other groups see is that the death penalty really does work hand in glove to promote both the dehumanization, and also just as a practical matter, promotes mass incarceration. When we think about what we as people either representing people in capital trials or consulting with attorneys, who were doing that all through the 90s, when the rate of death sentences was so high, of course, what was our advice, so often, in cases? Take the plea, take the deal, get your client to plead guilty, and we wanted our legislatures to have life without parole, because we knew that death penalty juries, if the alternative was life with parole, they were more likely to choose death, because of the fear that our clients would get out and harm someone else. The death penalty as a tool for prosecutors has been a very important thing and that’s just another way that this, the system, is skewed in a more punitive direction and to the extent that it has always brought its heaviest force to bear on people of color. That means it’s exacerbating the racism and just as, you know, when you think about it kind of philosophically, if society accepts, that killing another human being is a legitimate law enforcement tool, how do you get excited about solitary confinement or locking up kids for the rest of their life, right? Those things seem less bad. They’re not, you know, we’re not killing them and so I really do think there is a unique way that the death penalty connects to these other issues, but also really, is the driving force and kind of the, you know, it’s the apex of our system, and it’s the apex of the racism in the system.

Ngozi Ndulue 32:59

And I would also add, when we’re willing to, in McCleskey v. Kemp, say, “Well, even if you did prove that, you know, basically the system is racist, we’re still willing to have a death penalty that is going to affect people—that we know that based on race is going to have different outcomes.” And this is supposed to be, from our earlier cases, this is supposed to kind of be a careful proceeding — this is supposed to be reserved for a select, you know, the worst of the worst. This is the place that they’re supposed to be the most guideposts for justice, right? Here, even in the most extreme life or death way, we have said, “Yeah, a little racism is okay. You know, there’s not much we can do about it.” And I think about that with Justice Scalia’s memo, which was even more explicit about the decision in McClesky v. Kemp, where a statistical challenge that showed just stark racial disparities in the death penalty was rejected, and he said, “of course, you know, of course, we’re pretty sure that racial bias affects everything, but we really can’t do much about it.” Definitely, there’s something about courts, legislatures, the general public, just kind of throwing up their hands and saying, well, sorry, you know, it’s kind of just the way it is about the death penalty. That says, well, when we’re talking about, you know, misdemeanors that are actually going to have significant effects on whether people keep their job or keep the place that they’re living. How are we going to expect a more justice system there when here at this other end of the spectrum where, supposedly, we have all of the pieces in place for fairness, we still have rampant racial bias? There was another piece that you just mentioned that I really wanted to touch on. There’s so much—I feel I could talk for hours, but it was a piece about fear of juries driving decisions and death penalty cases. And I think that that’s one other piece that I think is so important that we’ve grown to understand more: that retributive idea that we need this punishment. That this is also the result of the way that we process race, that there are all of these things that we can talk about in the way that the death penalty is administered. Juries decide to send people to death that they’re afraid of, that they think might be dangerous in the future, but that have a racial dimension in the culture that that we live in.

Our report talks a little bit about a study that says that the idea of retribution and mercy—those are racially coded for us, so we have an easier time connecting retribution with African Americans and mercy with white people, and the people that have the most anti-black implicit bias, are also the people that are most supportive of these retribution policies. And then if we think about the juries that we end up with in capital cases, we know that they have to be death-qualified, quote, unquote, which means that they have to be willing to impose the death penalty and we know that that also skews who is making that decision to people who are more prone to convict, people who have more racial bias, it turns out to be and people who are less sympathetic to that mitigating evidence that’s supposed to weigh against a death sentence. When we’re thinking about the history of race and the death penalty, and that that interaction, and how it comes into the present, how do you see your project is helping us to understand what is going on under the surface that is not necessarily visible without really thinking about how our country’s racism has affected our entire mindset?

Gretchen Engel 37:13

Right. Well, it sort of takes us back to where we started this conversation and touching on part of our impetus for this project was to support our litigation under the Racial Justice Act. And our major litigation is focused on statewide, comprehensive analysis showing that comparable, qualified, white and Black citizens are treated very differently when they are called for jury duty. And that if you’re black, your chances of being excluded from this real right of citizenship, you’re excluded at double the rate that white citizens are. And if we of course, go back in time, we can see—it used to be by law—only white people, white men, white men with property could serve on a jury that when we, the US Supreme Court started to push on including black people in the venire, then you saw these other kinds of methods, tests, and you had to be a person of character, you had to be a property owner, again. There are just all these waves that we see that Black people are excluded from juries and that has now moved to these discretionary strikes. And I think it is about keeping people of color from operating the levers of power in our most serious cases, because we know from the social science research that, of course, more diverse juries are better deliberators. They take longer, they spend more time reviewing the evidence, they asked more questions. And I think we can feel better about the decisions they render, and about the legitimacy of our system if jury service is not confined to the people who are white. And so that has been just a huge issue and in our litigation. And we’ve, you know, used a lot of different kinds of public education vehicles to try to bring that home and in this project, one of the things that we have is an essay by someone who’s on death row in North Carolina, whose name is Paul Brown, and he writes about the experience of being the only Black person in the courtroom other than, at times, his family members, wh were there and having an all white jury and what that’s like. So I think that’s a another way to bring the point home to people that this American ideal we have of being judged by a jury of your peers is an ideal that we need to keep working towards—that we have not reached that goal yet.

Ngozi Ndulue 39:59

This is has been a wonderful conversation. I know that we could speak so much longer about what our work on this issue has taught us and has brought to our broader conversation. But I’d like to wrap up with a question about what the timing of the release of this report has meant for your work and has meant towards reception. I know, as we started with, at the beginning, both of our projects have been long in process and in the making. I know personally, when we were in the midst of this pandemic, and then Ahmaud Arbery was killed, Breonna Taylor was killed, and then George Floyd was killed. It really crystallized, for me, the importance of telling the stories of a country and a legal system in which we have come to kind of accept this parade of violence and death. And how intertwined—that consistent police violence—how consistent that is with some of the issues that we see in the death penalty. So for me, completing this report and issuing it this fall was really important, not just for being able to provide some context while the nation is considering this issue. But it was also important to broaden the understanding of the problems with the death penalty and continued racial bias beyond kind of just the statistics of the disparate impact and the disproportionate use, many of which have been developed for decades. For the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, what would you say about the importance of this report? You’ve talked about the impact that you would like it to have. Have you seen an impact yet? And what do you see as coming next for you with the use of this project in your work?

Gretchen Engel 42:16

Sure, the pandemic and of course, our overall political situation, it seems so challenging, right, to reach our audience because there’s so much out there. We had thought to launch our project in connection with decisions in the Racial Justice Act cases and then our Chief Justice got out in front of us. She gave that public address on George Floyd. And then a few months later, she was releasing some of these RJA opinions—or not a few months—a few days. She gave that speech on a Tuesday, and we won the case, that means the biggest victory we’ve ever had in a case on race, that will affect more than 100 people on our death row, was released that Friday, we kind of weren’t ready for that and so then what we turn to was, well, the governor has set up this task force on racial equity and the death penalty. And they’re having their big public meeting on October 15th, so we’re going to get our project launched on October 5. And I actually addressed a working group of the task force late in September—I think it was the day your report was issued—and so included a slide of that, along with a mock up of our web page to alert them that these twin reports would be coming out. I would say the response to the project has been incredible. I think it really speaks to the visual power, the diversity of the voices, the fact that people that are directly affected by the death penalty were included: Paul Brown, who wrote the essay I mentioned earlier, the profiles of people who are on death row, there’s artwork by another death row inmate. And we’ve gotten tremendous response and then of course, the election has taken over the news completely and so what I’m looking forward to in this next phase—and of course this podcast is part of that—is taking the project from the web, into our communities and having people go out and some of our contributors and staff from CDPL giving presentations at civic groups or universities or churches and really sharing this story because we’ve got all this information related to our RJA litigation. I think we really can go anywhere in the state and really tailor the presentation in a way with local information as well, right? To say: here’s the overall, but let me tell you about the lynching that happened in your county, and let’s compare that to the death penalty case that was in your county.

Ngozi Ndulue 45:09

That is really powerful work here from the position where we’re providing people the information that they need to understand what is happening with the death penalty today, and that the context they need, right? And that is what we see in our report—we’re giving you the broad overview, right? You have this encyclopedia that talks about, okay, here are the numbers. here’s the psychology. here’s how the death penalty works at every single stage, here’s how it’s connected to our path, here’s why we need to address this to think about the future of a criminal legal system that truly dispenses justice. And it is exactly what you were saying, from your kind of state lens to the local lens, that we hope that people take our report to actually say, “Okay, this is the broad picture, and how does that apply to us? If we’re talking about the death penalty in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I’m from, we need to be talking not just about who’s on death row and who has been executed, but we need to be talking about it in this broader context.” It’s great to hear if you have any kind of last thoughts that you would like to share, please do. But I love that we are ending on this kind of point of connection coming from different lenses.

Gretchen Engel 46:26

Exactly. Well, thank you again, so much. And really, I’m sure you’ll have a link to Racist Roots. And it’s very easy to find on the web and, you know, take some time exploring it. It’s a very visually stunning, beautiful website with powerful content. And I feel like the two—your report just adds greater weight to ours, right? And it shows the seriousness and the pervasiveness and together, they make a very powerful kind of incontrovertible argument about race and the death penalty and so I’m so appreciative of DPIC’s work on this and the thought to revive and go back—I hadn’t realized that there was this 1998 predecessor report—yeah, that’s sobering, right, to come in 22 years later, and you’re like, Huh, well, we’ve got some new stuff to say and it just corroborates everything we said before. When I spoke to this working group at the task force, and I talked to them about race and death penalty and the segue to the slide showing the covers of our reports was I said, “I wish I was telling you something new, but I’m not. It’s an old story.”

Ngozi Ndulue 47:44

Thank you so much for being with us, Gretchen Engel from CDPL.

Gretchen Engel 47:48

Yeah, thank you.

Ngozi Ndulue 47:50

Please look at our Enduring Injustice: The Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the US Death Penalty report on And also explore the Racist Roots Project at Thank you for joining us today and subscribe to Discussions with DPIC on the podcast app of your choice.