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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 13, 2001

Coming to terms with the death penalty

By Andrew Kohut
Director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press

Rising public opposition to the death penalty has been one of the few liberal social trends in recent years. But there is some reason to wonder whether the public's overwhelming enthusiasm for executing Timothy McVeigh will stall or possibly reverse this development.

Every nationwide poll taken has found most Americans favoring the execution, which had been scheduled for Wednesday until Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a decision to stay the execution in light of the discovery of 3,000 pages of additional FBI material on the convicted Oklahoma City bomber.

This comes at a time when the same nationwide surveys are finding diminishing support for capital punishment. The Pew Center's polls show backing for the death penalty slipping to 66 percent this year from 80 percent in 1994. But our most recent survey also finds 75 percent favoring Timothy McVeigh's execution.

A Gallup poll last month uncovered an even greater dissonance in opinion when 22 percent said they opposed the death penalty but wanted to see McVeigh die. Will these Americans, in light of the McVeigh case, turn back from their opposition to the death penalty in general?

I don't believe they will. Growing reservations about capital punishment are tied to broad social trends and new technologies that are raising doubts about the fairness of the process that sentences people to state-delivered deaths.

Opinion about capital punishment has ebbed and flowed with the country's ideological swings and with fluctuations in the crime rate. In the 1950s about two-thirds of the public favored capital punishment — a proportion similar to today's. But by the mid 1960s, the heyday of American liberalism, most people opposed the death penalty. Public support dropped to 42 percent, a 50-year low, in a 1966 Gallup poll. But reactions against social dislocations and rising crime rates drove support back up to 51 percent by the end of the 1960s. Public enthusiasm for capital punishment increased steadily through the 1970s and 1980s in response to higher murder rates and as a reflection of more conservative times. By 1986, according to Gallup, support was 30 percentage points higher than it had been two decades earlier. It reached a high point of 80 percent in 1994, that very conservative year that saw the Republican Party capture Congress.

Since then, emerging doubts about fairness in the application of the death penalty have led to greater reservations about it. Reversals of death sentences after DNA testing have fueled concerns about the ultimate miscarriage of justice. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last July found the public sharply divided over whether the death penalty was applied fairly. Only 32 percent of the respondents in an ABC News poll said they were very confident that those on death row were actually guilty. The polls also show public support for suspending the death penalty until its fairness can be studied.

At the same time, the public's thinking about capital punishment as a deterrent to murder is changing. While the public still considers deterrence the primary justification for the death penalty, an ABC/Washington Post survey released last month found a majority did not believe the death penalty lowered the murder rate. This survey also showed the public found retribution to be a considerably less powerful argument for capital punishment than deterrence.

Religious belief is becoming an important factor in the public's reassessment of capital punishment. Pew Center surveys this year show that people most often cite their religious beliefs as a basis for their opposition. This is creating an unusual coalition of opponents — political liberals, ethnic minority groups and social conservatives, including Catholics as well as white evangelical Protestants.

Timothy McVeigh may be the poster boy for capital punishment for the moment, but the momentum is going the other way. The magnitude of his crime and his lack of remorse have enraged the public. But it is unlikely that the extensive coverage of his execution will actually reverse the new climate of opinion about capital punishment. Instead, it may raise the profile of the issue, especially for those who have new reservations about the death penalty.