What sways US views on death penalty

Americans favor capital punishment by a 2-to-1 edge - down from a 5-to-1 margin in the 1990s, a time of high urban crime.

Americans still favor the death penalty, but their support has waned during the past few years.

Several developments, including news reports of men found innocent who were on death row in Illinois, have apparently shaken the confidence of many Americans in the fairness of capital punishment.

Timothy McVeigh's pending execution has added further fuel to the debate. Mr. McVeigh, convicted of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, would be the first person executed under federal law in almost four decades.

While Americans are often portrayed as ardent supporters of capital punishment, the record shows that at times the public has been sharply divided.

The most recent Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, completed May 3 to 7, found Americans favored capital punishment for persons convicted of murder by more than a 2-to-1 margin. Yet that is down significantly from the mid-1990s, when the margin was 5 to 1.

The Monitor/TIPP poll found capital punishment is most firmly championed by Republicans, men, and whites. Opposition is strongest among Democrats, women, Hispanics, and blacks.

A return to 1937?

Those in favor of the death penalty led by 61 percent to 30 percent. Those results were similar to a 1937 Gallup poll that reported Americans favored the death penalty for murder convictions by 60 to 33 percent.

Yet during the years since 1937, American opinion has swung widely. "It has gone up and down over the years," says Edwin Meese III, who served as attorney general under President Reagan.

Mr. Meese, now a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, told the Monitor: "Particularly heinous crimes, like the bombing in Oklahoma City, tend to increase support for the death penalty. Then when you have news stories raising questions about people's guilt, that has the opposite effect."

The 1960s, a time of antiwar sentiment and a rising counter-culture, saw opposition to the capital punishment reach a high-water mark. At one point - in 1966 during the Vietnam War - more Americans were opposed to the death penalty (47 percent) than favored it (42 percent), the only time that has happened in the long-running Gallup poll.

Then in the 1990s, with violent urban crime making headlines, sentiment swung sharply the other way. Gallup surveys found support for executions reached an all-time peak of 80 percent in 1994. The next year, opposition to capital punishment shrank to 13 percent, the lowest ever.

Since that time, surveys have shown gradual erosion of support for executions.

Tonya McClary, domestic program director for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says DNA testing has been an eye-opener for Americans, who realized innocent people are sometimes convicted. Since 1973, 95 persons have been freed from death row as new information became available, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Meese and Ms. McClary say public opinion has also been influenced by the recent investigative focus of the press on capital cases. Newspapers have brought attention to the cases of not only innocent people behind bars, but also the failure of states to provide adequate counsel for people accused of capital crimes.

Arguments by notable figures

Public debate over the death penalty is nothing new. On April 21, 1868, John Stuart Mill, a famous 19th-century liberal, told the British Parliament that the most humane yet effective punishment for murderers was death.

"I defend this penalty, when confined to atrocious cases, on the very ground on which it is commonly attacked - on that of humanity to the criminal," Mr. Mill argued. The only viable alternative, life imprisonment and hard labor, would be "more cruel in reality," he said.

Famed Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw concurred in 1948: "The real problem is the criminal you cannot reform." Imprisoning such a person for life is no answer, for it unfairly wastes and degrades the lives of the jailers, he said. A better answer is to "kill him kindly and apologetically."

On the other side, the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in a 1994 dissent that for years, states had attempted to impose the death penalty under court guidelines that required fairness and consistency. Justice Blackmun said: "Despite the effort of the States and courts to ... meet this daunting challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake."

Blackmun concluded that eliminating the problems of the death penalty "can never be achieved." For that reason, the system will "wrongly kill some defendants." He said, "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."

The Monitor/TIPP survey found that 70 percent of those favoring the death penalty do so because it is a "fitting punishment" for a crime of murder. Most others who favored the death penalty said its greatest value was as a deterrent to crime.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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