Death penalty is dying

In depth photo

Graphic courtesy of Jake Pemberton

For the past 17 years, people from across the nation have come together to take part in the annual march to abolish the death penalty, held every October in Texas. The event experiences an annual growth of media coverage, sponsor support, and marchers of diversified backgrounds. Such an event would have been considered taboo pre-20th century, but the national consensus of the hotly debated topic is shifting.

The march is only a small light of the change in discourse of the opinions on capital punishment. Gallup, an organization that collects data on pressing worldwide issues, has an ongoing poll of American death penalty opinions dating back to 1936. The poll exposed that since 1996, 80% of the American population was in favor of the death penalty. However, the percentage has been slowly declining while the amount of people who oppose the punishment is rising. 

As of today, Gallup found that those who favor the death penalty now make up 61% of the American population. Opposition of the punishment makes up 37%, an increase from 13% in 1996. Only 2% of those who were asked have no opinion on the subject matter.

Such data has yet to be complimented by an analysis of why the turn of opinions is occurring. Jeffrey Lin, an expert in criminology at the University of Denver, believes that we can attribute part of the shift to more opposing views to newer generations.

Jeffrey Lin photo

“Do we coddle or punish the most dangerous criminals?”

“It’s correlated with youth liberalism,” said Lin. “The younger generations haven’t seen many death penalties. Not seeing it makes us get used to not having it.”

Lin continued to explain how university environments tend to lean politically left, thus swaying the newer generations of un-informed students to have more liberal views.

To generate a general understanding of younger views, a poll performed on the campus of the University of Denver obtained the opinions of 30 random students. On May 23, the participants were asked about their positions: What is your opinion of the death penalty? Why are you against/for it?

Of the students who participated, only 3 advocated for the death penalty, while 16 admitted to being against the practice. Graham Smith, among the remaining 11 students who identified as indifferent to the use of the punishment, defended his position.

“It depends on the situation,” said Graham. “It’s difficult to quantify what constitutes the death penalty.”

The poll conveyed similar results to the recent Gallup polls, but is too narrowly-scoped to further credit the younger generations for the national shift of opinion. However, scholars at DU report similar findings.  

Scott Phillips, an expert and professor on capital punishment, can account for the generational impact on the continuous growth of opposition. Phillips teaches a class based solely on understanding the death penalty, and begins each class by asking his students to (anonymously) admit their positions. Each year, as Phillips explained, there is a decrease of students who are in favor, paired with an increase of those against or apathetic of the punishment.

The opinion of newer generations is not the only hypothesized reason that the number of those against the death penalty is increasing. Among the points debated by those opposed to the punishment, the potential of botched executions reigns as one of the most important for abolition.

The Death Penalty Information Center reported that there have been 45 executions-gone-wrong since the application of lethal injection was first incorporated. Morgan McCormick, sophomore at the University of Denver, credits such executions for the foundation of her opposing position.

“I don’t know much about the topic, but I have heard a lot about botched executions. That’s enough for me to not like it,” said McCormick.

However, the death penalty does prove useful in certain aspects, which is enough to keep the majority of the American population advocates of the practice. Among the majority, the aspect of fairness is of most importance. Gallup found that the leading reason people agree with the death penalty is that the punishment fits the crime, enforcing true justice. However, the use of this defense is decreasing, while the defense of how the death penalty saves taxpayers money is increasing.

Other positive aspects include the closure of the victims’ families, along with the idea that executing a prisoner is the best way to deter potential crimes by setting an example.

Such reasons are clearly satisfying enough to keep the death penalty in practice, but there is no escaping the fact that the majority opinion is slowly switching sides. Still, the shift is only spurring speculation of why opinions are changing.

Among speculation is the factor of race, and how it could be an apparent contributor to the changes in opinion. Lin referenced the Ferguson riots to explain how nationwide events can quickly adjust the national consensus of issues.

“We might actually see an increase of support among white people due to the riots,” said Lin. “The racial division does matter”.

Phillips added to the impact of race, but conveyed that the death penalty is an unequal system, which is pushing people to feel more opposed to the practice. From his research on capital punishment, Phillips found inmates are more likely to be put to death if the victim was white, and that the probability increases when the inmate is African-American.

Realization of inequality within the practice of the death penalty could be contributing to the increasing size of the opposition.

Such attributions to the shift of national opinion are only theories, though. The lack of knowledge of what is causing the shift is leaving speculators in the dark, and sparking curiosity of what will happen next.

Although there is evidence of the national opinion shifting towards opposition of the death penalty, the end game is difficult to predict. When asked about future trends of the national consensus, Lin was skeptical of any significant shifts or policy changes.

“The government has the same questions that we have,” Lin said. “Opinions might fluctuate, but I could see the overall opinion remain divided for a while.”










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