Over the past few decades American correctional policy has focused on a "get tough" approach toward crime and punishment. In order to cast themselves as "tough on crime," both Democrats and Republicans have continuously supported measures to increase the punishment allocated to criminal offenders. The most punitive type of punishment in the United States is arguably the death penalty. Unlike other types of punishments (such as prison or jail), the death penalty is the only punishment with a mobilized opposition that continues to fight against its use.
Political leaders, criminal justice administrators, judges, and citizen groups throughout the United States look at public opinion on capital punishment to support its continued use. In fact, strong public support is arguably the number one reason the death penalty continues to be used as a form of correctional policy in our criminal justice system. Bohm (2003) argues that public support for the death penalty contributes to its continued use in at least five ways. First, strong public support can sway legislators to vote in favor of the death penalty and against any statutes seeking its repeal. Second, he argues that prosecutors may seek the death penalty for political rather than legal purposes. Third, it may influence judges to impose death sentences or uphold death sentences on appeal. Fourth, governors may be less likely to veto death penalty legislation or commute a death sentence due to fear of risking re-election. Lastly, and what Bohm argues is the most important, is that supreme court justices (both state and federal) examine support for the death penalty as a measure of "evolving standards of decency" to decide whether the death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution's 8th Amendment "cruel and unusual punishment" clause.
Due to the fact that death penalty opinion influences so many facets of our political and court systems, it is extremely important that measurement of public support for this policy be accurate. It is the purpose of this study, therefore, to examine the factors that shape the public's opinions on the use of the death penalty. Furthermore, this research examines whether individuals' support or opposition for the death penalty varies with the introduction of different circumstances and information.
Although a large amount of research in this area has been conducted by academics, much of our knowledge of death penalty opinion has been a result of public opinion polls (e.g., Gallup polls). Beginning with studies in the 1930s, public opinion on capital punishment has been measured in a variety of ways. Until recently, however, the majority of death penalty opinions were measured by some form of the question: "Do you oppose or favor the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" In addition, these studies only offered yes/no or oppose/favor responses and left out options such as don't know, not sure, or no opinion (Bohm, 2003). Current research, however, is taking steps to test different methodological approaches to measuring public opinion on this issue (Bohm; Jones, 1994; McGarrell & Sandys, 1996).
The Marshall Hypothesis
In the United States Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia (1972) the Court ruled that the death penalty violated the U.S. Constitution's 8th Amendment "cruel and unusual punishment" clause. This decision was made at a time when support for the death penalty was at its lowest in history, thus the decline in public support was cited as a measure of "evolving standards of decency." Justice Marshall argued that if given information about the death penalty, "the great mass of citizens would conclude ... that the death penalty is immoral and therefore unconstitutional." In other words the Supreme Court decided that informed public opinion was opposed to the death penalty and it should, therefore, be ruled unconstitutional.
After the Furman case, researchers began to test the "Marshall hypothesis" but encountered a number of methodological issues (Bohm, Clark, & Aveni, 1991; Bohm & Vogel, 1991, 1994; Cochran & Chamlin, 2005; Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979; Sarat & Vidmar, 1976; Vidmar & Dittenhoffer, 1981). Difficulty deciding what kind of knowledge is required, to what extent someone is "informed," and how the knowledge should be imparted to the subjects were all commonly faced problems (Bohm, 2003). It is likely that many of these issues contributed to the mixed findings they produced. Some found support for the hypothesis that information can decrease the public's support of the death penalty (Bohm et al.; Sarat & Vidmar; Vidmar & Dittenhoffer), while others found that the presentation of information did not decrease support and at times may have polarized opinions (Bohm, 1990; Lord et al.).
Regardless of limitations in testing the hypothesis and the mixed findings, the Marshall hypothesis was the first systematic change in the methodological approach to testing public opinion on the death penalty. Prior to this, researchers were simply asking whether someone supports or opposes the use of the death penalty, rather than examining the extent of their support or the influence of demographic or attitudinal variables on their support or opposition to this form of punishment. The Marshall hypothesis placed the focus on examining how education changes individuals' death penalty attitudes and has greatly improved our understanding of the public's views towards capital punishment. Although the research examining the Marshall hypothesis did not specifically change policies, it did add to a richer understanding of views (specifically the role of education and information) towards this penal sanction.
How You Ask the Question
While opinion polls repeatedly show an increasing punitiveness among the public from the 1960s to the 1990s, McCorkle (1993) argues that methodological issues raise questions regarding the use of these polls in the development of public policy. If surveys only assess a portion of the public's thinking, an opinion poll may not be gauging the public's true beliefs. For example, a survey that asks a "yes" or "no" type question forces respondents to simplify their beliefs to be represented in this dichotomy. No consideration is given to various conditions that might change a person's opinion. This limitation might prevent those relying on the polling data from truly understanding the complexity of respondents' views towards the death penalty. Furthermore, methodological differences in death penalty studies can greatly influence the results. This indicates the need for further examination to determine which methodologies are better suited for this type of public opinion research.
Over the past 15 years there have been movements by researchers and pollsters to change the wording of questions and/or include alternative punishment options (Bohm, 2003; Jones, 1994; McGarrell & Sandys, 1996). The addition of "no opinion" response categories and alternative punishments such as life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) in opinion polls has provided for a greater understanding of public sentiment on this issue. Bohm suggests that additional death penalty opinion studies have not only adopted the aforementioned additions, but have also utilized questions addressing the administration of the death penalty, innocence, disparity, frequency, and deterrence.
This movement towards a better understanding of death penalty opinion is still in the beginning stages. Much of the new research tends to focus on one aspect of opinion (e.g., deterrence or administration) and thus continues to be limited in its scope and ability to fully understand the complexity of opinion. In addition, there is a lack of death penalty research capable of capturing a larger degree of variation in death penalty opinion. In an attempt to better understand death penalty opinion, the current study utilizes qualitative focus groups to assess a larger range of citizen views towards capital punishment. …