It’s happened quietly, mostly unnoticed by the press, but in the past two years something important has been going on in the debate over the death penalty in America. Support for capital punishment, which had been falling, has turned around and is now rising. In a new Gallup poll, 74 percent of those surveyed say they favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. Just two years ago, in May 2001, support stood at 65 percent, its lowest point in more than two decades.
The latest increase has been slow but steady. In October 2001, 68 percent favored capital punishment. That rose to 72 percent by May 2002, and dipped slightly to 70 percent in October 2002 before rising to 74 percent.
The climb has reversed a trend that began in the late 1990s, when support for the death penalty fell as a result of the “innocence” movement. Opponents of the death penalty argued that the capital-punishment system was so flawed, and the chance of an innocent person’s being executed so great, that the whole system should be abolished.
Now, whatever success the abolitionists once had seems to have been erased. In addition to generally rising support for capital punishment, the new Gallup poll also shows an increase in the number of Americans who believe the death penalty is fairly applied. That figure is now 60 percent, up from 51 percent in June 2000.
The poll also shows that most people accept the idea that an innocent person might be executed — many believe it has happened at some point in the last five years — but still support capital punishment.
Why the new support for the death penalty?
It’s possible that Americans have assessed the “innocence” argument and found it wanting. More important, they’ve seen it in action.
For example, could anyone say that former Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s (R.) blanket commutation of death sentences in his state helped the abolitionist cause? Ryan spared the lives of some brutal and indisputably guilty killers and in so doing created so much publicity that the victims’ families felt compelled to speak out in the press. The result was no help for the abolitionists.
Ryan’s blunder surely played a part in the death-penalty turnaround, but by far the most important event has been the arrival of terrorism in America. If you chart the nation’s support for capital punishment, you’ll see it falling in the period before Sept. 11, 2001, and rising afterward.
As capital-punishment opponent Richard Dieter, head of the <a href=http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/>Death Penalty Information Center, sees it, the terrorist attacks took attention away from the “innocence” movement, which had been gaining momentum before Sept. 11.
“I think what was creating concern about the death penalty was that people were hearing so much about the errors, wrongful convictions and unfairness in the process, and to some extent that’s been muted now with coverage of other issues,” says Dieter. “The problems that plague the death penalty system are still out there, but they’re not on the front page.”
Perhaps. But it seems more likely that the terrorist attacks had a far more profound effect. “After 9-11, the country has come to grips with something that lies behind a good deal of support for the death penalty,” says death-penalty supporter Bill Otis, a former federal prosecutor who is an adjunct professor of law at George Mason University. “And that is that there is actually evil in this world, that there are people out there who will blow you to bits because they hate you, or for amusement, or to advance some bizarre view of the world, and that the only thing that represents proportionate justice in those cases is the death penalty.”
If Otis is right, the new Gallup poll numbers reflect not a temporary setback for the anti-death-penalty movement but a more lasting public realization that the death penalty is the only appropriate response to some crimes.
Still, the abolitionists will keep at it; Dieter says opponents of capital punishment might turn to “fresh stories or new angles” to regain momentum. But that might not help. Yes, Americans want the death penalty to be applied with fairness and care, but they want it to exist — because they know that in this world, justice requires it.
— Byron York also writes a weekly column for The Hill, from which this is reprinted.