The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment

By Franklin E. Zimring | Go to book overview

I
DIVERGENT TRENDS

THIS INTRODUCTORY SECTION tells the story of the profound changes in perception and policy that have created the conflict between the United States and the rest of the developed West on the question of capital punishment. Chapter 1 provides a short description of recent activity in the United States, producing a snapshot of policies and the policy conflicts about capital punishment at the turn of the twenty-first century. Chapter 2 provides a longer account of the changes in death penalty policy in Europe over the period since the end of World War II. An important part of the current difference in outlook between Europe and the United States results from dramatic changes in the European view of the death penalty that have emerged only since the 1980s. How and why did capital punishment become a human rights question? Why do our friends and neighbors in the developed West now regard American capital punishment as fundamentally uncivilized? What can the recent history in Europe tell us about the potential for change in the United States?

Chapter 3 profiles the changing imagery of the death penalty since 1980 in the United States, searching for clues to explain why the policies in the United States differ by examining the way in which Americans talk to each other about the death penalty. Of particular importance in this search for explanations of current U.S. policy is the shift in images of executions from a governmental act to a service program for homicide survivors, a degovernmentalization of the execution that has been the most dramatic change in the popular imagery of capital punishment. The changes documented in Chapter 3 provide a basis for speculating about what differences in culture, temperament, and history make this new image of capital punishment in the United States more acceptable to public opinion.

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