The Impact of Crime Victimization and Fear of Crime on Attitudes toward Death Penalty Defendants

By Seltzer, Rick; McCormick, Joseph P., II | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1987 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Crime Victimization and Fear of Crime on Attitudes toward Death Penalty Defendants


Seltzer, Rick, McCormick, Joseph P., II, Violence and Victims


A 1983 telephone survey of 610 respondents in two Maryland counties found that the general disposition of the respondents toward the criminal justice system was a better predictor of abstract attitudes toward the death penalty than either the respondents' fear of becoming crime victims or whether they had been victims of crime. Yet respondents' fear of crime victimization was a better predictor of their willingness to impose the death penalty or to accept mitigating circumstances during the penalty phase of a capital case than their abstract attitudes toward the criminal justice system. Respondents who were "somewhat" afraid of crime victimization were less likely to support the death penalty than were respondents who were "very" afraid or "not" afraid of victimization. These findings indicate that previous research on the death penalty may have been flawed because the wording of the questions asked was too abstract and unidimensional.

In the decade between 1967 and 1977, no executions took place in the United States. Executions had stopped while the courts grappled with the questions of whether capital punishment was cruel and unusual and, if not, how capital trials should be structured to ensure fairness. The beginning of this stay of capital executions corresponded with the lowest level of support for capital punishment since national public opinion data were first collected on this issue. In 1966, only 45% of those surveyed by a Gallup poll were "in favor of the death penalty for persons convicted of murder" (Erskine, 1970).

In 1972, the U. S. Supreme Court decided Furman v. Georgia. Although this decision resulted in vacated death sentences for all 629 persons on death row, a sharply divided Court ruled that capital punishment could recommence if it was applied regularly and evenhandedly. Since 1967 and the stay of capital executions, public support for the death penalty has continued to increase (see Rankin, 1979). In 1974, two years after the Furman decision, 66.5% of the respondents in the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey (NORC-GSS) "favored the death penalty for persons convicted of murder." By 1986, the level of public support for the death penalty, according to NORC data, had grown to 75.3%.

Toward the end of the Supreme Court's 1987 session, the latest major legal challenges to the death penalty were decided. In Lockhart v. McCree (1986), the Court ruled that it was acceptable to exclude potential jurors from capital juries who indicated they would always vote for life in prison instead of death, even though they said they could be fair and impartial during the guilt-innocence stage of a capital trial. In doing so, the Court rejected the findings of over a dozen social science studies that have shown this policy would result injuries that would be more conviction prone (see Seltzer, Lopes, Dayan, and Canan, 1987, for more on this issue). In McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), the Court ruled that the findings of systematic racial disparities in sentencing on capital cases does not prove discrimination in a particular case.

With these last two challenges rejected by the Court and with public support for the death penalty at least remaining constant, it is likely that there will be an acceleration of executions in the future. As of August 1, 1987, 1,911 persons were on death rows throughout the United States, and 86 persons had been executed since 1977 (Death Row U. S. A. , August 1, 1987). These recent events suggest that few, if any, major constitutional challenges to capital punishment are likely to succeed. The legal battle over the death penalty will now focus almost exclusively on individual capital cases instead of large class-action cases. The attitudes of prospective jurors will become increasingly important, since the decisions of jurors will be overturned only on a case-by-case basis.

JURIES IN CAPITAL CASES

Unlike almost all other criminal proceedings, capital cases are divided into two stages.

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