Support For The Death Penalty Declines

By: Eric Ruder

Public opinion against the death penalty has grown sharply in the last few months -- a development that abolitionists have been fighting to bring about for a long time.

Support for the death penalty nationally has fallen to its lowest point since 1981, according to a recent Gallup poll. Just six years ago, support for the death penalty hit a very high 80 percent, but since then, it has declined 14 percentage points to 66 percent.

Perhaps more importantly, 28 percent of people today say that they are opposed to capital punishment -- almost twice as many as the 16 percent who said they were opposed six years ago. The last time more people opposed capital punishment was in 1972 -- the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional.

This shift in public opinion can be attributed to a few factors. As the rate of executions has grown, so has the visibility of the gore, racism and errors inherent in the death penalty -- and this has forced many to reconsider their views. Public protests against the death penalty also have succeeded in making the case against the death penalty to a wider audience.

And when politicians like Gov. George Ryan of Illinois are pushed into declaring a moratorium because of the risk of executing innocent people -- a decision supported by 81 percent of Illinois residents -- the arguments of abolitionists are vindicated in the eyes of even more people.

So, for example, when it comes to innocence and the death penalty, Americans on average now estimate, according to Gallup, that 10 percent of all people sentenced to death are innocent!

In those places where the death penalty has been the subject of controversy, support has declined even more. Among registered Illinois voters, support for the death penalty has fallen from 76 percent in 1994, to 63 percent a year ago, to 58 percent today. And in Cook County -- a largely urban county that includes Chicago -- only 45 percent of voters support the death penalty.

In Texas, with its assembly-line killing machine, only a bare majority of 53 percent supports the death penalty if the death row inmate has "shown signs of turning his or her life around" -- a development spurred by widespread revulsion at the execution of Karla Faye Tucker last year.