Recently, news stories might give the impression that most Americans are staunch defenders of the death penalty. However, public opinion polls, many state legislatures, and increasing numbers of jurors paint a very different picture. The death penalty is in rapid decline in the U.S. The public is deeply skeptical of the capital punishment process, shocked at its enormous costs, and quite ready to replace it with alternative sentences.
In a national survey of registered voters by Lake Research Partners in 2010, 61% of respondents chose various forms of a life without parole sentence as the proper punishment for murder, and only 33% said the punishment should be the death penalty. In fact, the death penalty is not a priority to most voters. The same poll showed that almost two-thirds of voters would continue to support a legislator who voted to repeal the death penalty. The most common response was that a legislator’s vote to repeal the death penalty would make no difference to voters at all. The use of the death penalty was last in a list of budgetary priorities among voters. Emergency services, job creation, and crime prevention were the highest rated priorities. Voters cite executing the innocent, unfairness, and the high costs of the death penalty as their top concerns about this process.
According to a separate survey by RT Strategies in 2007, sixty percent of Americans do not believe the death penalty is a deterrent to murder and an amazing 87% believe that an innocent person has been executed in recent years. The result of all this doubt is that death sentences in this country have declined by over 60% since 1999. Executions have dropped by half, and four states in the past four years have ended the death penalty altogether. More will be taking up that question in 2012, including California, Maryland, and Connecticut.
It is true that the Gallup Poll regularly reports that American support for the death penalty remains steady at about 64%, but that is a superficial analysis of opinion that is belied by actions, most notably the free fall in the use of the death penalty over the past decade. The majority of Americans do not have a moral objection to the death penalty; perhaps an error-free and efficient process would still get their vote. But the death penalty in practice has proven to be so politically motivated, so rife with biases and arbitrary application, and so vulnerable to the worst kind of gross governmental mistake—the killing of an innocent citizen—as to be unsupportable as a public policy for growing majorities of voters.
Even in Texas, the number of death sentences has dropped dramatically from a high of 48 in 1999 to 8 last year, and executions declined by 28% last year compared to the year before. All death penalty states have now adopted the sentence of life in prison with no parole, and that is the sentence frequently meted out even in egregious murders.
Some states in the U.S., such as Michigan and Wisconsin, were far ahead of Europe and Latin America in abolishing the death penalty 150 years ago. Less than a quarter of our states carried out an execution in 2010. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, over 82% of the executions have been in just one region of the country—the South—and almost half of those executions were in just one state—Texas.
The death penalty is not a national phenomenon. The U.S. Military has not carried out an execution since the early 1960s and the federal government has carried out only three, and none in the past 8 years.
The death penalty train has left the station and is heading into history. It will, no doubt, linger on as a tool of political rhetoric and as a curious symbol of the past. But there is no doubt that the American people are ready for its demise and that the leaders of tomorrow will likely be glad when it is finally gone.
Richard C. Dieter
Richard C. Dieter is Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center.