Friday, June 8, 2007

Death Penalty Facing Crisis of Confidence With American Public, New Poll Finds

Death Penalty Facing Crisis of Confidence With American Public, New Poll Finds In Furman V. Georgia, Justice Marshall opined that if the public were better informed about how the death penalty is applied and actually works, support for its use would drop. This bit of conjecture came to be known as the Marshall Hypothesis. As one would expect, social scientists attempted to test the hypothesis, but soon realized that the hoped for drop in support as knowledge increased did not materialze. In one study, the participants became even more polarized in their opinions about the death penalty.

As we gained a better understanding of death penalty attitudes, we realized that many people did not oppose or support the death penalty because of utilitarian reasons, like general deterrence, or concerns over fairness. One common factor stands out that explains a great deal about both support and opposition to the death penalty - many peole on both sides of this issue believe that killing is wrong. Supporters of capital punishment cite revenge and retribution as justifications for their support, while many who oppose death sentences do so in the belief that any killing by the government is wrong.

Yet, for decades, the evidence has been accumulating that the death penalty is plagued with a host of problems. If the death penalty was held to the same standard of success and failure and cost/benefit ratios as other public policies, would it be retained in light of the vast amount of evidence? But national polls continued to reveal strong support for the imposition of death sentences (the flaws and limitations of the questions are well noted), which in turn has had an impact on the decisions of prosecutors to seek and on judges to impose death sentences.

The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed some of these issues in its recent decisions, such as banning the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded, which finally brings us into compliance with international treaties and evolving standards of decency (to use the phrase from Tropp v. Dulles). The decision in Roper and Atkins were based, in part on the impact of public opinion, domestic and international, and the diminished use by a significant number of states. My fear, however, was that the Court was simply removing barriers in order to make it easier to conduct,and perhaps even increase, the number of executions.

Yet something changed starting around 2000. After reaching a high of 98 executions in 1999, the number of executions began to decline and has hovered in the 50-60 per year range. The population of death row has also decreased during the same time period. We speculated that perhaps the issue of innocence was undermining support, but still feared that this issue could not overcome the desire for revenge and retribution, especially after 9/11, that fuels a great deal of support for the death penalty.

Now we have evidence that the stories of individuals confined to death row for decades, along with near-death experiences, seems to be having an impact on public support. While some individuals are attacking the Death Penalty Information Center and its count of individuals exonerated from death row, the public is fairly convinced that innocent people have been sentenced to die and have been executed. Does the number really matter? How many wrongfully convicted does it take to shock and appall us? Evidently a significant proportion of the public have become sufficiently concerned over the issue and may have grown weary of the millions of dollars spent will little to show in terms of crime control. So, perhaps there might be some validity to the Marshall Hypothesis after all. On the other hand, since 1976, 1078 individuals have participated in America's experiment with the death penalty. Too bad we did not listen to Justice Blackmun or follow the lead of most of the rest of the world and stop tinkering with the machinery of death.

1 comment:

dudleysharp said...

Not quite, professor:

Death Penalty Polls - Support Remains Very High
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below
Death penalty support is much deeper and much wider than we are often led to believe, with significant percentages of those who say they, generally, oppose the death penalty, actually supporting it under specific circumstances.
General Support

76% of Americans find that we should impose the death penalty more or that we impose it about right - only 21% that it is imposed too often. (Gallup, May 2006 - 51% that we should impose it more, 25% that we impose it about right)

71%  find capital punishment morally acceptable - that was the highest percentage answer for all questions (Gallup, April 2006, moral values poll). In May, 2007, the percentage dropped to 66%, still the highest percentage answer, with 27% opposed. (Gallup, 5/29/07)

When asked the general question "do you support capital punishment for murderers?" , 67% of Americans said yes, with 28% opposed  (Gallup, 10/06).

Specific Case Support is much higher

81% of the American people supported the execution of Timothy McVeigh, with only 16% opposed. "(T)his view appears to be the consensus of all major groups in society, including men, women, whites, nonwhites, "liberals" and "conservatives."  (Gallup 5/2/01).

85% of pf the primarily liberal Connecticut respondents voiced support for serial/rapist murderer Michael Ross' "voluntary" execution. (Quinnipiac University Poll, January 12, 2005).
79% support the death penalty for terrorists (Survey USA News Poll #12074, Sponsor: WABC-TV   New York, 4/26/2007 New York State poll)
73% of Connecticut voters support the death penalty for the two parolees accused of the Cheshire (Ct) home invasion rape/murders of a mother and her two daughters. While 63% of Connecticut voters support the death penalty for murderers, in general, AT THE SAME TIME.  ("Connecticut Voters Support Death Penalty 2-1", Quinnipiac University Poll, 11/7/07). NOTE: Support is more than 3 to 1. The poll showed 73% for execution, 23% opposed, for those parolees.  It was 63-27% for the general question.
This, from the French daily Le Monde, December 2006 (1):

Percentage of respondents in favor of executing Saddam Hussein:  
Great Britain: 69%
France: 58%
Germany: 53%
Spain: 51%
Italy: 46%
USA: 82%

We are led to believe there isn't death penalty support in England or Europe. European governments won't allow executions when their populations support it: they're anti democratic. (2)

Why the large "error rate" between general and specific case support?
That very  wide "error rates", between general support and specific case support, is likely due to the differences in (1) the widespread media coverage of anti death penalty claims, without the balance of contradicting those false claims, producing lower general support,  (2) the absence of that influence when looking at individual cases when the public knows the crimes, the guilt of the murderer, and absent the anti death penalty bias factor, thus producing much higher specific case  support and/or (3) reluctance of some respondents to voice stronger support for the death penalty, unless  specific examples of murderers and their crimes are provided, as evidenced within (1) and (2).

Death Penalty Opposition? Look Again.

Significant percentages of those who say the oppose the death penalty do, in fact, support that sanction under specific circumstances. This provides firm evidence that death penalty support is much wider and deeper than expressed with the answer to the general death penalty polling questions.

57% of those who say they oppose the death penalty, generally, actually do support  it for McVeigh's execution (81% supported the execution of McVeigh, 16% opposed (Gallup 5/02/01), while  65% offer general support for executions, with 28% opposed (Gallup, 6/10/01).  The polls were conducted at nearly the same time.

40% who say they oppose the death penalty, generally, actually do support it for terrorists. (79% support and 18% oppose the death penalty for terrorists.  67% support and 29% oppose the death penalty for murder.) (SAME POLL - Survey USA News Poll #12074, Sponsor: WABC-TV   New York, 4/26/2007 New York State poll)

84% of those who, generally, say they oppose the death penalty, actual did support it for Michael Ross. (SAME POLL - 85% say Connecticut serial rapist/murderer Michael Ross should be allowed to waive appeals and be executed. When asked whether they favor or oppose the death penalty,  59% favor -  31% oppose (Quinnipiac University Poll, January 12, 2005).

ERROR NOTE:  The percentages will likely have a range of change, instead of a specific percentage, because there would be a transfer of points, not just from those opposing, under the general question, but from the undecided" or "did not answer" group, as well,  into the supportive group for specific murders.
Distortion: Death Penalty vs Life Without Parole Polls

When responding to this question: “If you could choose between the following two approaches, which do you think is the better penalty for murder: the death penalty (or) life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole?”, Gallup found

47% for the death penalty, 48% for life without parole, (Gallup, May 2006).

Some, including Gallup and Quinnipiac, speculate that this represents lower support for the death penalty. Such improper speculation cannot be justified and is an unethical use of pollsters opinion.

Neither respondent group is saying do away with the other sanction or that they oppose the other sanction. What is does  mean is that 95% of US citizens support the death penalty and/or life without parole for murderers. It could also mean that 85% of all respondents support both sanctions. 
For example, "Which do you think is better - vanilla ice cream or chocolate ice cream?" 50% prefer chocolate, 45% vanilla. However, 85% actually like both vanilla and chocolate ice cream - with a slightly lower percentage liking vanilla, marginally less. 99% of respondents don't want either ice cream banned. 1% were undecided.
Also, this Gallup question is highly prejudicial, which wrongly influence the answers. This has become commonplace.
First, "absolutely" no possibility of parole doesn't exist.
What is absolute is that the executive branch can reduce sentences and the legislature can change the laws and make them retroactive, if it benefits the criminal, thereby offering two avenues for parole in "absolutely" no-parole cases.
Therefore, the polling question offers a false premise which, obviously, distorts the answers. Gallup has been made aware of this for some time.

 Secondly, by law it cannot be a choice of either only a death sentence or only a life sentence, as Gallup wrongly poses.  Constitutionally, the death penalty cannot be mandatory. Therefore, at least two  sentencing options must always be provided to jurors in a death penalty eligible case.

Gallup did not ask this their misleading question in 2007. I hope they did it because of theses error issues and will not resume it or mention it in the future.
The proper questions might be, IF you are searching for a true life vs execution choice,:
For (specific case) murderers, do you prefer the punishment options of
1) The death penalty or life without parole? or
2) Life without parole, only, or lesser sentences, excluding a death sentence in all cases?
Furthermore, this has the benefit of reflecting reality, as opposed to the distorted fiction of Gallup's (and others') current life vs death questions.  The death penalty cannot be a punishment option, without also having  life or other options and the death penalty is case specific.

Death penalty support is much deeper and much wider than we are often led to believe, with significant percentages of those who say they, generally, oppose the death penalty, actually supporting it under specific circumstances.
There is 82% death penalty support in the US, as recently as December 2006. Even the most liberal of US states, Connecticut, has shown very strong support for specific case executions - 85% (2005), 73% (2007).
95% of US citizens support the death penalty and/or life without parole for murderers. Therefore, we already have the most democratic approach - we give jurors the choice between those two sentences in capital eligible cases.

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
email, phone 713-622-5491
Houston, Texas

Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS  and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

Pro death penalty sites 


www(dot)  (Sweden)

(1) The recent results of a poll conducted by Novatris/Harris for the French daily Le Monde on the death penalty shocked the editors and writers at Germany's left-leaning SPIEGEL ONLINE (Dec. 22, 2006). When asked whether they favored the death penalty for Saddam Hussein, a majority of respondents in Germany, France and Spain responded in the affirmative.

(2)An excellent article, “Death in Venice: Europe’s Death-penalty Elitism", details this anti democratic position (The New Republic,  by Joshua Micah Marshall, 7/31/2000). Another situation reflects this same mentality. "(Pres. Mandela says 'no' to reinstating the death penalty in South Africa - Nelson Mandela against death penalty though 93% of public favors it, according to poll. "(JET, 10/14/96). Pres. Mandela explained that ". . . it was necessary to inform the people about other strategies the government was using to combat crime." As if the people didn't understand. South Africa has had some of the highest crime rates in the world in the ten years, since Mandela's comments. "The number of murders committed each year in the country is as high as 47,000, according to Interpol statistics." As of 2006, 72% of South Africans want the death penalty back. ("South Africans Support Death Penalty",  5/14/2006,  Angus Reid Global Monitor : Polls & Research).

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