Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

The Rhetoric of Abolition: Continuity and Change in the Struggle against America's Death Penalty, 1900-2010

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

The Rhetoric of Abolition: Continuity and Change in the Struggle against America's Death Penalty, 1900-2010

Article excerpt

This article seeks to understand when, how, and where the framing of arguments against capital punishment has changed. While others have focused exclusively on the national level, we studied the framing of abolitionist arguments in three American states: Connecticut, Kansas, and Texas. Each is located in a different region of the country, and each has its own distinctive death penalty history. We studied the framing of arguments against the death penalty from 1900 to 2010. Our study suggests that the rhetorical reframing of the campaign against capital punishment that has occurred at the national level has had deep resonance at the state level. Over the course of the 20th century in Connecticut, Kansas, and Texas, the focus on error and arbitrariness has assumed greater prominence among abolitionists. In each state, this change began to take hold in the late 1960s and 1970s and accelerated as the 20th century drew to its close. But, in each state, older frames persisted. Older arguments continued to occur with greater frequency than the new abolitionism.


I. TEXAS         763
III. KANSAS      775
CONCLUSION       779


Today the United States seems to be on the road to abolishing the death penalty. Support for capital punishment, which for the last quarter of the 20th century appeared firmly entrenched, is weakening. (1) Moreover, across the U.S., the number of death sentences has dropped from a high of 315 in 1994 to forty-nine in 2015. (2) Mirroring this trend, the number of executions peaked in 1999, and has been steadily declining over the past fifteen years, reaching a twenty-four year low in 2015. (3) While thirty-one states still retain the death penalty, (4) sixteen of those states and the federal government have not executed anyone in the past five years. (5)

There are, of course, many possible explanations for the changing situation of capital punishment. Relatively low rates of violent crime and the growth of life in prison without parole sentences are two such explanations. (6) However, if the American death penalty eventually does end, it will be in no small part because abolitionists altered their political and legal arguments and, in doing so, successfully reframed the death penalty debate. (7)

Communications scholar Robert Entman broadly defines the term "framing" as "any effort to influence public opinion through the formulation of messages." (8) Issues of political import in a democracy are almost always being framed "as various political entrepreneurs [attempt] as best they can to affect the debate given changes in the stream of information coming in from forces beyond their control." (9) The framing of complex issues involves social, cultural, and political elements. In this way, debates surrounding the death penalty resemble other hot button issues in the United States.

The importance of framing in political contests is illustrated by the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. Teresa Godwin Phelps notes that an "unprecedented shift in the rhetoric used about gays and lesbians--the names they are called, the kinds of images and metaphors that describe them, the stories about them" paved the way for the Supreme Court's recognition of gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. (10) A large reason for the change, Phelps argues, was "the strategic rhetorical choices made by gay activists and advocates." (11)

In the past half century, the framing of the death penalty debate has shifted and evolved dramatically. Perhaps the most important factor in this evolution has been wrongful convictions in death penalty cases. Since 1973 more than 150 people have been exonerated from death row. (12) Abolitionists have used the phenomenon of wrongful conviction to change the story about capital punishment and the public's understanding of what is at stake when the state kills. (13)

Professor Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his colleagues examined this change in anti-death penalty rhetoric. …

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