Diann Rust-Tierney

Diann Rust-Tierney


* Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
* Director of the Capital Punishment Project of the ACLU
* Adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University

Diann Rust-Tierney is the Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), which was established in 1976 as the first “fully staffed national organization exclusively devoted to abolishing capital punishment.”  Rust-Tierney has also been the director of the Capital Punishment Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) since 1991. The NCADP calls Rust-Tierney “the ACLU’s lead strategist and spokeswoman on the death penalty.” She is currently an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University.

Rust-Tierney graduated from an all-girls’ high school in Washington, D.C. and then majored in political science at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, from which she graduated in 1977. She received a degree from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1982 and took a position as a public defender in Washington, D.C.  She later worked with the National Women’s Law Center. In 1992, Rust-Tierney led a successful campaign to defeat a death-penalty referendum in Washington, D.C.

At the 1995 American University Law Review Conference, Rust-Tierney said, “Racism, as we know from other aspects of a society, is a very complex issue. There is no reason to believe that those same complexities that we see in other constitutions in our society don’t carry over here. So, when we talk about why you have disproportionate numbers of people on death row who kill white victims from a statistical point of view, . . . there are lots of things that go into the decision to prosecute; and there are lots of pressures that go into these decisions that come from public outrage, which has a lot to do with the public’s identifying with the victim. The jury need not necessarily know the race of the victim to have the outcome that we are so concerned about if the prosecutor is getting pressure from the community because the community is outraged when there’s been a white victim.”

Rust-Tierney’s assertion that the death penalty is applied in a racially discriminatory manner (favoring whites over blacks) wilts under careful scrutiny. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, whites who are arrested for murder or non-negligent manslaughter are actually more likely than their black counterparts to be sentenced to death (1.6 percent vs. 1.2 percent). Of those inmates under death sentences, whites are actually likelier than blacks to have their sentences carried out (7.2 percent vs. 5.9 percent). These disparities are not huge, and the purpose here is not to suggest that they indicate bias against whites; the point is that in no way do they support the notion of bias against blacks. In their 1997 book America in Black and White, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom point out that “black offenders over the past generation have not been sentenced to death at a higher rate than white offenders. No careful scholarly study in recent years has demonstrated that the race of the defendant has played a significant role in the outcome of murder trials.”

The Thernstroms also note that while fully 58 percent of prisoners currently serving sentences for murder are black, only 40 percent of inmates on death row are black; that is, relative to the rate at which black offenders commit murder, they are sentenced to death in disproportionately low numbers. Finally, if courts were unfairly imposing the death penalty against black defendants who deserved greater leniency, we would expect to find that blacks on death row have cleaner criminal records than their white counterparts. But in fact, the exact opposite is true. Blacks awaiting execution are 10 percent likelier to have had felony convictions, and 20 percent likelier to have had homicide convictions, prior to the crimes that propelled them to death row.

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