'Innocence' argument dramatically changed death penalty public support

Vicki Fong
September 22, 2008
book cover for “the decline of the death penalty”

The recent execution of a convicted murderer in Georgia and a Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of a form of lethal injection have prompted fears of a rush to executions nationwide. But American public support for the death penalty has fallen dramatically over the last 20 years, and a new book by Penn State political scientists Frank Baumgartner, Amber Boydstun, and Suzanna De Boef, examines the factors behind the transformation.

The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence, published by Cambridge University Press, provides statistical analysis of data documenting the historic shifts in public opinion and of the sharp decline in the use of the death penalty by juries across the country.

Capital punishment in America peaked in 1935 at nearly 200, declining until 1968 where there were no executions, staying at that level until 1976. From 1977 to 1996, there was a steady increase in the number of executions due to a "tough on crime" approach heard in public opinion and discussions, and public policy, according to the book.

In recent years, however, the number of death sentences in America has declined steadily, from 326 in 1995 to 110 in 2007. A Columbia Law School study in 2000 found that over 60 percent of all death sentences are overturned. There have been 124 exonerations between 1973 and 2007, mostly due to trial errors or prosecutors' misconduct, and only 15 of them due to new DNA evidence.

It is this "discovery of innocence" that has re-framed the death-penalty debate, the book argues. As attention focuses on the likelihood of wrongful convictions, the public discussion has moved away from morality and religion, where people are least prone to persuasion, and to the idea that the death penalty is a bureaucratic process that is extremely costly and inefficient, and that sometimes executes innocent people. Other familiar arguments such as racial bias have gained ground as well, the authors state.

They note, "The reframing of the issue has raised the question: What level of error is acceptable in the justice system, particularly with the death penalty being irretrievable?"

Frank Baumgartner, Ph.D., is the Miller-Lavigne professor of political science in the College of the Liberal Arts, frankb@psu.edu. Suzanna De Boef, Ph.D., is associate professor of political science, sdeboef@psu.edu. Amber Boydstun, Ph.D., is assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Davis. The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence was published by Cambridge University Press in January 2008.

Last Updated September 22, 2008