Wonky

Death Penalty Fades As Hot-Button Issue

Death penalty opponents set up signs April 23 at the Florida State Prison near Starke, Fla., just hours before the execution of Robert Eugene Hendrix, 47, who killed his cousin and his cousin's wife to prevent him from testifying in a burglary case against him. i i

hide captionDeath penalty opponents set up signs April 23 at the Florida State Prison near Starke, Fla., just hours before the execution of Robert Eugene Hendrix, 47, who killed his cousin and his cousin's wife to prevent him from testifying in a burglary case against him.

Phil Sandlin/AP
Death penalty opponents set up signs April 23 at the Florida State Prison near Starke, Fla., just hours before the execution of Robert Eugene Hendrix, 47, who killed his cousin and his cousin's wife to prevent him from testifying in a burglary case against him.

Death penalty opponents set up signs April 23 at the Florida State Prison near Starke, Fla., just hours before the execution of Robert Eugene Hendrix, 47, who killed his cousin and his cousin's wife to prevent him from testifying in a burglary case against him.

Phil Sandlin/AP

It's almost hard to remember how dominant an issue the death penalty was a generation ago.

Crime and drugs were the top issues for voters in 1994. Not coincidentally, support for the death penalty peaked that year, at 80 percent, according to Gallup polling.

Opposition to the death penalty once cost prominent politicians their jobs, from New York Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo to California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird.

The safest stance was clear: support for capital punishment.

But all that has changed. Contemporary politicians appear to have paid very little price, if any, for supporting recent moratoriums on capital punishment, or for voting to abolish it altogether.

"It just hasn't been a salient issue here, despite the governor declaring a moratorium on the death penalty," says Travis Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University, referring to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee's announcement earlier this year.

Once A Major Issue

The death penalty was a centerpiece of the 1988 presidential campaign. Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was widely criticized that fall for not reacting emotionally when a debate moderator asked him if he would favor execution if his wife were raped and murdered.

Four years later, Democratic front-runner and eventual winner Bill Clinton burnished his credibility on the crime issue by returning from the campaign trail to Arkansas and presiding as governor over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a cop killer who was brain damaged.

But crime has declined steadily and dramatically since the 1990s, when the death penalty peaked both in popularity and in practice. A majority of Americans still favor the death penalty, but its support reached a 40-year low in a Gallup poll conducted last fall.

As violent crime and murder rates have dropped over the past couple of decades, so has political support for capital punishment.

California voters in 2012 rejected a ballot measure that would have ended the death penalty in that state. It lost by only a 4-percentage-point margin, however — a big change from the 71 percent to 29 percent result when a similar vote took place back in 1978.

"We are at a point today where the number of people in strong support of the death penalty has declined," says Elizabeth Theiss Smith, a death penalty expert at the University of South Dakota.

Problems With The Death Penalty

Meanwhile, the death penalty itself has come to seem more problematic. DNA evidence and other methods have helped exonerate 144 individuals who had been sentenced to death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

A study released Monday by a team of legal scholars and statisticians found that more than 4 percent of all those condemned to death over the past 40 years had likely been wrongfully convicted.

The Supreme Court, with a series of recent decisions, has pretty much limited the death penalty to cases involving murders committed by mentally sound adults. Although many people would like to see the most heinous criminals "get what they deserve," says Smith, statistics show that death sentences have more to do with race, class and the quality of the defense attorneys involved than with the crime itself.

Where a life sentence might once have meant a criminal would spend only 15 years behind bars, jurors now know that life without the possibility of parole is a sentence that will stick. They've increasingly embraced it as an option.

Issues Of Cost

As the death penalty has declined in use, some politicians are less convinced of its value as a deterrent. Instead, as states seek to trim their corrections costs, the sheer amount of money spent on death penalty cases has become a concern.

"We have a responsibility to stop doing the things that are wasteful and ineffective," Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley said last year as he signed a bill abolishing the practice in Maryland.

Concerns about this week's botched execution in Oklahoma will fit with the pragmatic line of argument politicians are now using to oppose the death penalty, says Frank Baumgartner, co-author of The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence.

"There is a new way a politician can move away from it," he says. "No matter how angry you might be about the horrific crime that occurred, we can't trust the government to handle it appropriately."

An Emerging Democratic Issue

Maryland was the sixth state to abolish the death penalty in as many years. Inslee's moratorium in February followed a similar move taken in 2011 by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and a de facto moratorium imposed last year by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

All these politicians are Democrats. The states that are getting rid of the death penalty are blue, while the practice continues most regularly in Republican-dominated states such as Texas, Florida, Ohio and Missouri.

It's no wonder. Opinions about the death penalty, as with so many issues, are split along partisan lines. According to Gallup, 80 percent of Republicans support capital punishment, compared with 47 percent of Democrats.

Some Republican politicians have sought to make the death penalty an issue when running against abolitionist Democrats. It's not a strategy that meets with great success anymore.

"The people who primarily support the death penalty are Republicans — men, whites and the wealthy," says Matt Manweller, a political scientist and GOP state legislator in Washington. "Those are not groups that vote for Jay Inslee anyway."

Those political dynamics could change, if the murder rate spikes upward and crime becomes more of a concern. Political support for the death penalty has undergone a long decline, but such trends can often reverse themselves.

"There is still substantial support for the death penalty," says Smith, the South Dakota professor. "Nobody loses an election by being tough on crime."

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