America’s growing opposition to the death penalty

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Oklahoma’s botched execution of Clayton D. Lockett is focusing attention on the application of the death penalty in the United States. Americans remain supportive of the death penalty, but this support has dropped dramatically over the past fifteen years.  Research suggests that the Oklahoma incident will likely accelerate growing opposition to capital punishment.

Twenty years ago, support for the death penalty was extraordinarily high, with eight-in-ten Americans supporting it. Public support for capital punishment increased in the years following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty was not “cruel and unusual punishment” forbidden by the Constitution.

Gallup historical trend on death penalty.

Gallup historical trend on death penalty.

Near the end of the 1990s, public opinion began to turn. In polling by Gallup, the General Social Survey, and other polls found that support dropped 20 points in the decade after the mid 1990s.

The change in opinion cut across religious traditions. In the 1990s, over two-thirds of Catholics who regularly attended mass supported the use of the death penalty.  In 2012, the General Social Survey found that only 52 percent of these Catholics backed the use of capital punishment.  For non-practicing Catholics and Protestants, support has declined from around 80 percent in the 1990s to the upper 60s in 2012.

Researchers Frank R. Baumgartner, Suzanna De Boef, and Amber Boydstun found that the reversal of public opinion was due to a change in the nature of the debate. Views of the morality of the practice did not change. Instead, attention focused on the possibility errors in the judicial system that could result in innocent people being executed. As the media shifted attention to the question of errors in the system, public opinion moved against the death penalty.

Other questions have also arisen about the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent, racial bias in sentencing, and the financial cost of execution. The Oklahoma fiasco highlights another issues: the consequences of a botched application. As the media focuses on these issues, public opinion will likely continue its move toward opposing the death penalty.