There Are Signs That the Death Penalty Is on the Way Out
Hiding behind the waterfall of Trump coverage and the rise of hate in American politics, a cultural and legal silver lining is emerging, one that is agreed upon across party lines. Yes, despite the cheers that Trump receives for calling himself the law and order candidate, Americans may finally be ready to retire the death penalty. In its Monday editorial, the New York Times uncovers a pattern, in public opinion polls, in research, and most importantly, in the results of trials across the country that suggests that " Americans’ appetite for this barbaric practice diminishes with each passing year."
A September study from the Pew Charitable trust reveals that America's support for law is at it's lowest in four decades:
Only about half of Americans (49%) now favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 42% oppose it. Support has dropped 7 percentage points since March 2015, from 56%. Public support for capital punishment peaked in the mid-1990s, when eight-in-ten Americans (80% in 1994) favored the death penalty and fewer than two-in-ten were opposed (16%). Opposition to the death penalty is now the highest it has been since 1972.
More importantly, this shift in public opinion is reflected in courtrooms across the country, with just 49 new death sentences in 2015, the lowest since 1976 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of capital punishment. The decline in death sentences may also have to do with the loss of overzealous prosecutors in the most capital punishment-friendly counties. The Times points out that prosecutors in Duval County, Florida and Caddo Parrish, Louisiana lost recent elections "at least partly due to voters’ concerns about their stance on the death penalty." The editorial cautions readers not to rest easy however, with the notion that those who do die by the state's hand are the worst of the worst criminals, or those who deserve it the most. In fact, "In fact the crimes of the people sentenced to death are no worse than those of many others who escape that fate."
The anti-death penalty momemtum continued statewide in Florida, when the Florida Supreme Court overturned a law that allowed unanimous juries to impose death sentences which increases the chance that both innocent people and defendants with mental disabilities will be spared the ultimate penalty. California voters will soon have the opportunity to decide whether to eliminate capital punishment completely.
Of course, getting the death penalty eliminated on a state by state, or ballot by ballot basis, would be slow and cumbersome. More effective would be a Supreme Court ruling, and the editorial points to three justices, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg who have expressed "misgivings" about, if not outright opposition to, capital punishment.
America may now be preoccupied with the results of the presidential electoral circus, but it will be over in less than three weeks. When we can finally focus on something else, it will be, as the Times Editorial Board so succinctly puts it, it is long past time for the court to send this morally abhorrent practice to its oblivion."
Read the full editorial here.