Public Opinion and the Death Penalty: A Qualitative Approach

Article excerpt

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.

Literature Review

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). …