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Public Support for the Death Penalty

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Public support for the death penalty has been the focus of polls here in the U.S. and internationally for decades. At least twice each year, opposition groups announce that American support is dropping, usually citing a variation in responses to the commonly used polling question ie: "which punishment do you support for murderers, life in prison with no possibility of parole or the death penalty." More recently we have been told that a drop in support is evidenced by the fact that juries are recommending fewer death sentences. The cause for the drop in death sentences may be as simple as the fact that there are far fewer murders today than there were 10 years ago, in part because many states adopted extended terms for repeat felons, taking the most likely capital defendants off the streets before they killed someone. The polling question, which puts the issue in the abstract and infers that all murders are capital offenses, invites a soft response. When the facts surrounding an aggravated murder are known to the public, support for a death sentence increases dramatically. A story by Kenton Robinson on theday.com makes this point.

He reports that in Connecticut, a state which has executed only one murderer since 1976, voters responded to the abstract question two years ago with only 37% supporting the death penalty and 49% supporting life without parole. When asked about Michael Ross, a Connecticut man convicted of the rape and murder of eight young women and girls, 70% of those who had favored the life sentence said Ross should die. The story suggests that the public is equally supportive of death sentences for the two habitual criminals facing charges for the home invasion murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters. As per usual, an abolitionist found it unusual that no one has called for a death sentence for whoever killed two black teenaged boys in Hartford two weeks ago, suggesting for the umteenth time that the death penalty is "race based," discriminating against black murder victims. If this were true, it is a poor argument for abolishing the death penalty, and a compelling one for taking steps to assure that those who murder blacks receive death sentences proportionate with the murderers of other races. The Boston Herald reported that the two boys appear to have been murdered during a botched robbery. The fact that they were wearing masks when they were killed has led investigators to conclude they were trying to rob someone when they were shot, according to the Hartford Police Chief. One of the boys had a prison record. Not really a good comparison to the Petit murders.

2 Comments

"The cause for the drop in death sentences may be as simple as the fact that there are far fewer murders today." Hah! Inspect the numbers a little more closely (current through 2005). Look at the national murder rate back in 2000: 5.5/(100,000 people). In 2005: 5.6. Fairly flat, although if you account for the increase in population between 2000 and 2005 it might show that the total number of murders is slowly on the rise. So what about the number of death sentences between 2000 and 2005: 232 and 128, respectively. In short, you are dead wrong. No pun intended. Public support for the death penalty - either through decisions of prosecutors or juries - is going down. Your other point, about the Gallup polls, is also simply obfuscation. Even conceding that the annual Gallup poll on the death penalty (or other similar polls) invites a "soft response" the fact that the response to the question they do ask is shifting away from death sentences shows a decrease in support for the death penalty. (as the data on death sentencing rates per homicide supports). And in case hard numbers don't do it for you, speaking with a capital prosecutor in California (largest death row in the nation), I was informed (based on anecdotal evidence) that the main reason for the marked decrease in noticed capital cases is not due to a decrease in murders, but the changed political climate: harder to get death sentences, less support for prosecutors who seek them in more cases.

As I pointed out in my post, juries are recommending fewer death sentences. Jewbulawguy believes the reason for this is because public support for the death penalty is dropping. Public opinion polls don’t lend much support for this. In 2000, Gallup’s annual poll reported that 66% favored the death penalty. Support rose to 71% in the Gallup poll after 9/11, dropped down to 66% in 2004, and in a poll released today Gallup reported that it is currently at 65%. Not much of a trend. The murder rate per 100.000 in 2000 was 5.5. It increased to 5.7 in 2003, dropped to 5.5 in 2004 and skyrocketed to 5.6 in 2005. Again, not much of a trend. Frankly, it is wiser to use a bigger window, like ten to twenty years, before announcing the discovery of a trend.

The best polls for determining what the public actually thinks are the ones where people go to vote. Last November voters in Wisconsin, which has not had a death penalty for 150 years, supported a referendum to enact one by 55%. Over the past year, legislators in six states were sufficiently comfortable with their constituents’ views to adopt measures to expand the death penalty.

It would also be a mistake to discount the lag time involved in capital cases generally. It is not unusual to have 1-3 three years lapse from the arrest of a suspect to conviction and sentencing. A murderer who killed his victim in 1998, for example, may not face the sentencing jury until 2000. As the murder rate has flattened out over the past several years, it is no surprise that capital cases would diminish, or even drop. The last time the murder rate was below 6 per 100,000 was 1966.

Another factor, as I pointed out earlier, is the effect that habitual criminal sentencing laws may have on the availability of death eligible murder cases. Most such cases are felony murders, i.e., murder during the commission of a rape, robbery, burglary or other serious felony. Because laws such as California’s “Three Strikes” increase the prison terms for those who repeatedly commit these crimes, as time goes by, the pool of potential felony murderers is reduced. While the number of major crimes dropped a relatively small amount between 2000 and 2005 (-51,218 crimes) it dropped 44 times that much in the preceding five years, leaving a total of 2,254,628 fewer major crimes. Hard numbers.

One certainly cannot ignore the fact that politics plays a role in the decision to seek the death penalty for a qualifying murder. This can make anecdotal evidence geographically dependent. Recently I learned that in Oakland it’s tougher to get a jury to bring back a death sentence than it is in Los Angeles, San Diego or Sacramento. Another prosecutor in a very large California county told me that the DA was not supporting decisions to seek a death sentence even though no deputy had concerns about reluctant juries.

The fact remains that the toughest hurdle for abolitionists is how the public reacts to a terrible crime, such as the Petit family murders. The death penalty in America is reserved for the worst murders. When most people learn the details of such crimes, the debate about public support becomes academic, requiring the abolitionists to resort to obfuscation. Here endeth the lesson.

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