April 13, 2021
For some, an “eye for an eye” is justice. To others, it makes the whole world blind.
Last month, Virginia became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, and first to do so in the South — where four times more people are executed than the rest of the U.S. combined. That’s a big change for a state second only to Texas in executions since 1976.
American public opinion is increasingly turning against the death penalty.
A 2020 Gallup Poll found 55 percent of Americans support the death penalty in general, down from a peak of 80 percent in 1994. And for the first time, a majority (60 percent) say life imprisonment without parole is a better punishment for murder than execution.
Seventy percent of nations have ended the practice (although 60 percent of the world’s population live in death penalty nations), according to Amnesty International.
Unlike other issues, this doesn’t fall perfectly along party lines. While Democrats are less likely to support the death penalty over a life sentence, Gallup surveys show the percentage of Republicans who feel the same increased 10 points since 2016. Reasons for opposition are complicated, spanning generational, statistical, and moral grounds.
Fewer executions. According to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2010 and 2020 death sentences imposed nationwide numbered fewer than half of the decade before. Some states such as California have it on the books, but rarely use it or have a moratorium now.
Generational shift. The death penalty is one of those issues with an age divide. Gallup polls indicate Americans between 18 and 34 support the death penalty at almost half the rate (24 percent) of their older peers (40 percent).
Racial justice. Young adults also tend to be more passionate about racial justice, especially when it’s so final. A 1990 U.S. Government Accountability Office study found defendants of any race who murdered white people were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered Black people.
Recent studies reported in the New York Times and The Monitor Weekly came to similar conclusions. Latinos, Native Americans and the poor are also disproportionately represented on death row. (A long history of race-dissimilar treatment in the justice system for other crimes was echoed in the oft-cited book, “The New Jim Crowe.”)
Debates in the legislature noted of nearly 1,400 people Virginia executed since 1608, it wasn’t until 1997 that a white man was executed for killing a Black man.
What if they’re innocent? Justice is earnest, but fallible. An average of four people on death row each year in the U.S. are exonerated. History has uncovered others who were exonerated too late. You don’t have to be young to feel the heartbreak in that.
Life in prison is cheaper. Because of high costs associated with capital trials and statutory appeals, life incarceration costs states less than execution. Virginia expects to save $4 million per year. Capital trials may also be more taxing on victims’ families, typically lasting up to four times longer than non-capital trials.
After two Idaho death-row inmates were released from prison in one year, Idaho’s bipartisan Joint Legislative Oversight Committee studied cases between 1998 and 2013. Their 2014 report concluded Idaho death penalty trials take an average seven months longer than non-capital murder trials, and appeals took about 50 percent longer.
Of the 251 defendants charged with first-degree murder during that period, 16 percent faced the death penalty and less than 3 percent received it. Of 40 sentenced to death in Idaho since 1977, three have been executed (21 got a new sentence on appeal). The JLOC reported other states had results similar to Idaho’s.
“Pro-life” consistency. Some conservatives oppose capital punishment on religious or moral grounds. Republican legislators in red states such as Wyoming, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, and Missouri have sponsored legislation to abolish it. Pro-life, they reason, applies to every life, not just the innocent unborn. And as death can’t be undone, life’s too precious (or constitutionally protected) to risk a mistake, they say.
Still, Republican majorities remain strongly in favor. Supporters say the death penalty is a just punishment for murder. And while life in prison can feel like a kind of hell, execution is seen as the only way to ensure the convicted will never kill again.
Is it a deterrent? Logic would presume yes, but states with death penalties don’t have lower crime rates. FBI Uniform Crime Report data culled by Deathpenaltyinfo.org indicate murder rates per population in death penalty states were consistently higher than in non-death penalty states between 1990 (4 percent higher) and 2018 (30 percent higher).
Do victims’ families want it? Numbers aside, closure and healing for victims’ families is high priority. Individual circumstances make it hard to gauge. Some ask prosecutors not to seek the death penalty — including a group of victims’ families who lobbied the Virginia Legislature to abolish it. Yet others vehemently want it, saying it’s the only way they can feel closure.
A 2012 study of 40 families by the universities of Texas and Minnesota found families in life-without-parole cases reported being able to move on sooner than those in the death-sentence cases. The death penalty case families said they felt continually retraumatized by the longer process.
Psychological and sociological research on closure suggests the legal process in general isn’t a reliable source to achieve it either way. It can feel symbolic and reassuring to seek justice, but the law doesn’t allow much room for emotion (Bandes, 2008).
This shifting trend is yet another illustration of American society’s impassioned debate with itself. Maybe we aren’t so “hopelessly divided” as we are experiencing growing pains in a rapidly shifting world.