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June 17, 2014

"Six Reasons Why Support for the Death Penalty Is Evaporating"

The title of this post is the sub-headline of this new Slate commentary by William Saletan.  Here is how the piece previews six reasons that follows:

For 40 years American politicians have assumed that favoring the death penalty is a winning political position. Is that era coming to an end? Is support for capital punishment, like opposition to gay marriage, evaporating? 

We can’t be sure. But we’re seeing the first signs that it could happen.

Death penalty support peaked at 80 percent in 1994 in the Gallup poll and the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey. Since then, it has been sliding. In the most recently published GSS sample, taken in 2012, support fell to 65 percent, the lowest number since the question was introduced in its current form four decades ago. If it falls any further, it’ll be in new territory. The latest Gallup sample, taken last year, found that support was down to 60 percent for the first time in 40 years.

In a Pew survey taken a year ago, support for executing murderers dropped to 55 percent, 3 points down from Pew’s previous low. Last month, in a CBS News survey, the support level fell to 59 percent (4 points down from the previous low) while the percentage of respondents who opposed the death penalty rose to 33 percent (6 points above the previous high). It’s the first time in the 26 years CBS News has asked this question that the support number has fallen into the 50s or the opposition number has climbed into the 30s.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this month points in the same direction. Given a choice between two punishments for murder, only 42 percent chose the death penalty. Fifty-two percent preferred life imprisonment without parole. That’s an 8-point drop in support for capital punishment since the previous Post/ABC poll in 2006. It’s the first time in recent history a majority has chosen life over death.

Why is enthusiasm for the death penalty declining? Will it keep falling? Let’s look at what has changed

June 17, 2014 at 11:18 AM | Permalink


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The DNA exonerations have caused many death penalty proponents to reconsider. Also, the cases of prosecutors' hiding favorable evidence are getting more widely known. For example, although not a death penalty case, the gross prosecutorial misconduct in the case of Michael Morton in Texas causes even the most adamant death penalty proponents to pause.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Jun 17, 2014 1:39:30 PM

The death penalty, in my opinion, has pragmatically affected plea deals the most. In states with death penalty, Life Without Parole becomes the defacto plea when the death penalty is threatened to be used in trial. Obviously, in states without the death penalty, the harshest punishment is Life Without Parole, which means that a plea deal would have to necessarily mean that some sort of release from incarceration will occur for many convicts.

This is a far greater implication with regard to the death penalty. This is not a judgment one way or the other on the issue, but I find the lack of discussion of plea deal consequences more disturbing than the moral component of the actual execution of the death penalty.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Jun 17, 2014 1:57:21 PM

Abolitionists demand perfection, of verdict of execution. Yet, the lawyr professio is the biggest failure of all. It allows 20 million Index felonies, and is wrong much of the when prosecuting people. It has supernatural beliefs. It makes things up as it goes along to justify its sick feelings and rent seeking. It is not imperfect. It is in utter failure. Not a word from the biased Abolitionists.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 17, 2014 6:08:24 PM

Each of the arguments has been thoroughly debunked in the Comments. Yet the lawyer insists on parading them out repeatedly. Repetition will not make them valid, just annoying.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 18, 2014 2:46:19 AM

I think the article's fundamental point (one that I was about to post before I read the article in its entirety) is that support ebbs and flows. There's a strong but gradual legislative trend towards abolishing the death penalty (probably because it's hard to justify bringing it back after taking the time to get rid of it), but opinion on the death penalty seems to increase or decrease based on the perceived risk of crime to you. And, while I don't think statistics will ever show the death penalty acts as a deterrent, people don't generally get persuaded by statistics, they use statistics to justify their beliefs.

So, while the current trends could result in the death penalty being abolished in a few more states, I don't think it's wise to read too much into current opinions when projecting long term.

Posted by: Erik M | Jun 18, 2014 8:02:32 AM

If "life without parole" is the greatest punishment don't quite know what "a plea deal would have to necessarily mean that some sort of release from incarceration will occur for many convicts" means. Before, the greatest punishment would be death, but would only occur in a limited number of cases. So, before, the same thing would occur, right? Also, "many" is a matter of degree. ALREADY the death penalty is usually not brought & even then it usually isn't carried out for a variety of reasons. I agree the issue has to be addressed, but note again that somehow states and countries that end the punishment deal with it. Also, when states carry out a few executions a decade, how "many" will be affected?

Posted by: Joe | Jun 18, 2014 10:24:04 AM

Joe, I follow statistics and correspond them to popular thinking to either point out blatant inconsistencies, or to justify current policies. To that end, one would need proper statistical rules in order to justify the impact of the death penalty with regard to plea deals.

The only method to test this theory that comes to mind would be to compare plea deals for murder defendents between capital and non-capital punishment states. Of course, this would be a laborious task, but in my opinion render the objective conclusion that would justify my own anecdotal observations that led me to opining this difference.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Jun 18, 2014 3:08:44 PM

I could not live in a death penalty state. Because when I die and go to the Pearly Gates for my interview I do not want to answer for what my state did in my name. The People of The Great State of Texas vs. JoeBob. There is not exception to the Sixth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Y'all Can does not cut it at the Pearly Gates.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jun 19, 2014 12:47:38 AM

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