Public support for the death penalty has dropped to its lowest point in more than four decades, according to Pew Research. The decline has been sharpest among political independents.
Support for the death penalty peaked in 1994 when 80 percent of Americans favored it. Now only 34 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of independents support the death penalty. Republican support remains relatively high at 72 percent, but also is slowly eroding from a high of 87 percent in 1996.
Pew says demographics of who supports or opposes the death penalty remains fairly constant. Men support the death penalty to a greater extent than women (55 percent to 43 percent). White support (57 percent) is nearly double support by blacks (29 percent) and substantially more than Hispanics (36 percent).
Younger people, college graduates and non-churchgoers generally oppose the death penalty, while white evangelicals largely favor it. Catholics are almost evenly divided on the death penalty, but white Catholics favor it by 54 percent.
While the Pew survey, which was conducted in late summer, gives death penalty opponents some solace, it doesn’t mean the electorate is ready to vote to eliminate it. Men solidly support its continued use (55 percent to 38 percent) and women only narrowly oppose it (45 percent against to 43 percent in favor).
Clearly campaigns to eliminate the death penalty will require patient educational outreach, which will be complicated because the death penalty isn’t a front-of-mind issue. African Americans, the group most opposed to the death penalty, are more focused now on police shootings of unarmed black men.
Death penalty opponents have hoped that the perspective of political conservatives would turn in the face of how much it costs to house inmates on death row for years and often aren't executed. That view appears to exist more in the minds of conservative elites than conservative white voters, at least based on the most recent Pew research.
In a previous survey, Pew took a deeper look at attitudes toward capital punishment and found 63 percent of Americans still believe the death penalty is “morally justified,” but 61 percent discounted the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. More than 70 percent acknowledged there is a risk that an innocent person would be executed.
The death penalty evokes a lot of passion, but not necessarily a lot of political attention. Ironically, it is most often brought up when a family member of a murder victim expresses forgiveness for the killer and urges against a death sentence.
One of the most compelling and emotion-filled such stories involves Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel in Minneapolis. Israel killed Johnson’s only son in 1993. Johnson brought herself to go to the prison where Israel was incarcerated, which led to a remarkable bond. Johnson now regards Israel as her son. Israel says her support has led him to pursue a college education.
Semon Frank Thompson, former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary who presided over the last execution in Oregon, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that said he supported the death penalty, but now opposes it. He talked about executions as being “surreal” and death row as a huge cost compared to standard incarceration.
Thompson also pinpointed why changing the policy on the death penalty may be difficult. “The average citizen,” he wrote in his op-ed, “will never find himself looking at a death row prisoner in the eye, administering a lethal injection and stating the time of death in front of observers and reporters.” He implies if they did, they might, like him, change their minds.