Death Penalty Disquiet Stirs Nation

By Harry, Jennifer L. | Corrections Today, December 2000 | Go to article overview
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Death Penalty Disquiet Stirs Nation


Harry, Jennifer L., Corrections Today


Author's Note: Some of the statistical information contained in this article may have changed since its writing.

It all started in January -- the mayhem surrounding recent developments in capital punishment. Growing uncertainty about the way death penalty statutes are applied has prompted reviews of capital punishment procedures, leading one state to put a moratorium on executions and several others to study the issue. First, Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R) imposed a moratorium on executions in his state after learning that more death row inmates had been freed than executed in recent years. Since capital punishment was reinstated in Illinois in 1977, 13 inmates have been released from the state's death row after new evidence cast doubt on their convictions. Six other states are considering a similar step, and Maryland is studying whether racial bias plays a role in its system of capital punishment. The New Hampshire Legislature also voted to abolish the state's death penalty, a move blocked by a gubernatorial veto.

Ryan has since appointed a panel to study how capital cases are tried and to make recommendations to ensure that innocent people are not executed. Since Ryan's imposed moratorium, other governors, including Texas' George W. Bush (R), have ordered DNA testing that could establish a person's innocence, delay executions, commute sentences or consider inquiries into racial bias in determining sentences.

Nationwide, 87 people have been released from death row as a result of DNA tests, recanted testimony or other new evidence, according to the Washington D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). That amounts to one reprieve for every seven inmates executed during that time.

Determined death penalty opponents have launched projects to have moratoriums similar to Ryan's enacted in the 37 other states with death penalty statutes. Opinion polls confirm that their timing might be right. Many surveys have found erosion of death penalty support during the past few years. Following Ryan's ban on executions, governors in Maryland, Texas and Virginia have commuted sentences and granted stays of execution because of various concerns, including incompetent defense lawyers, racial bias and access to DNA technology. Moratoriums have been considered in Alabama, Maryland, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Washington.

Capital punishment resumed in 1977 following a Supreme Court-imposed moratorium. By the end of 1995, 313 people were executed. In recent years, judges and lawmakers have acted to speed up death penalty reviews in federal courts, and the national execution total now exceeds 640.

Public Opinion And Support

Support for the death penalty has fluctuated throughout the century. A Gallup poll in February recorded the lowest support for the death penalty in 13 years. According to Gallup surveys, in 1936, 61 percent of Americans favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder. Support reached an all-time low of 42 percent in 1966. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the percentage of Americans in favor of the death penalty increased steadily, culminating in an 80 percent approval rating in 1994. Since then, support for the death penalty again has declined.

Today, 66 percent of Americans support the death penalty in theory. However, public support for the death penalty drops to around 50 percent when voters are offered the alternative of life without parole.

According to a Reuters/Zogby poll, African-American and Hispanic support for the death penalty in particularly heinous crimes declined in the spring and summer months; Zogby International polls show, however, that in February, the death penalty received strong support from members of minority groups. Of the 734 Hispanics surveyed, 59.6 percent strongly supported the death penalty and 13.3 percent supported it somewhat vs. just 6.4 percent who were somewhat opposed and 15.

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