Public Attitude Shifts on Death Penalty
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
This week, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to impose the death penalty for the rape of a child. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said there is a national consensus against using capital punishment in such cases. In fact, there were only two criminals on death row for child rape.
Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center joins me now here in the studio. Thanks for coming in.
Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center): Thank you.
SEABROOK: Now, I know that you personally are opposed to capital punishment but you also followed this very closely, so I'm going to ask you to take off the advocacy hat for a second and put on your fact-finding hat and just tell me this latest Supreme Court ruling was a victory for death penalty opponents. Is the death penalty generally on decline in the United States?
Mr. DIETER: It is being used much less than it had been. There's been a 60 percent decline in death sentences over the past seven years. About a 50 percent decline in executions, smaller death row. Actually, fewer states now have the death penalty and public support still is about two-thirds in favor but less than it had been in the 1990s.
SEABROOK: So what's going on? Why the decline?
Mr. DIETER: Well, there has been a series of revelations about the death penalty, about mistakes, about innocent people who were almost executed and now have been freed. Of course, the DNA revolution cemented that.
SEABROOK: I know there have been a handful of states that have imposed moratoriums on the death penalty - Illinois, Maryland. These are for different cases though, aren't there?
Mr. DIETER: Yes, for different reasons. Illinois has had a hold on executions since the year 2000 when the governor decided that the death penalty was really unpredictable, out of control. Other states - you mention Maryland and California - have a hold on executions because there are still lingering issues around their lethal injection process.
Then there's a couple of states, like Nebraska, which had electrocution as their method of execution. That was struck down. They don't have any replacement for it, so they can't have executions. And in a sense that's a de facto moratorium there as well.
SEABROOK: In places that you mentioned where there is no method of execution, can convicts still be sentenced to death?
Mr. DIETER: Yes.
Mr. DIETER: (Unintelligible) and…
SEABROOK: …some way?
Mr. DIETER: That's right.
Mr. DIETER: So it doesn't bar prosecutions, and in a matter of fact none of these states that have this moratorium, including Illinois, bar the prosecution and the death sentence being handed down.
SEABROOK: Can you tell in the numbers showing the decline of the death penalty how much has to do with the states working out these problems. Can you tell that?
Mr. DIETER: Well, I think it's more than that. I think it's a public shift on the death penalty. This is not just the questions of we got a reform the method of execution. This crop in death sentences is that we've been educated that the death penalty doesn't work as promised and so we better be more careful in its application.
SEABROOK: Do you see this attitude change showing up in opinion polls?
Mr. DIETER: It does. It shows up not so much on the for or against the death penalty, but the deeper questions that are now asked by the Gallup poll, for example, are which is the proper punishment for heinous murder: the death penalty or life without parole? And in the most recent Gallup poll on that more people said life without parole, and that was the first time it happened, than the death penalty. Just by a little bit; it was, you know, close to 50-50.
And that's the question that juries now face. It used to be life or death. But now they're told the options are life without parole or death, and they feel that that's actually a middle ground. So, life without parole sentences are growing and the public is supportive of that, even as they support the death penalty.
SEABROOK: Richard Dieter is the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Thanks very much for coming in.
Mr. DIETER: Thank you for having me.