Abolitionism at the Crossroads
Almost a quarter of a century after its greatest victory in Furman v. Georgia, the anti-death penalty movement is often the object of harsh ridicule. Its enemies mock it for being out of touch with the American people, who are sick and tired of crime, and for whining about unfair treatment of lawbreakers. Death penalty opponents are also mocked for having failed utterly in their effort to stem the tide of tough justice. If the news media is one's only window, the movement appears to consist solely of dwindling bands of diehards, bewildered by society's waning interest in their case, holding flickering candles at execution-night vigils.
Much of this ridicule is undeserved. The movement is small, but activity slowly increased in the late 1980s and early 1990s rather than diminished. The nation's surly mood on crime is real enough, but as we have seen in our discussion of opinion surveys, its enthusiasm for executions has been greatly exaggerated. There are indeed many die-hard proponents of capital punishment in this nation, just as there are some who could never be convinced that any execution could ever be justified. But between the two stands a sizable group that seems to be open to persuasion that there are better solutions to illegal homicides than legal ones. And those who write abolitionists off as "failures" overstate their case. Undoubtedly, capital punishment will survive into the twenty-first century. In fact, its use may be on the upswing as the new millennium arrives. But it is also true that far more convicts would be dead today, including at least a few innocent ones, were it not for the efforts of abolitionist attorneys and their supporting cast. Even their detractors recognize this when they lambast the supposedly ineffectual anti-death penalty forces for jamming the machinery of execution. And there would be no public discussion of the social and ethical dimensions of capital punishment if the 200-year-old flame were not kept alive by ADPM groups. Jonathan Gradess thinks that abolition work can be judged only as a cumulative process, not in terms of its immediate impact:
It's very much like chopping down a tree. It really isn't until the final ax stroke that the thing gives. But then it comes thundering down. Up until then you're