As voters head to the polls across the country, will three states see major changes in their approach toward capital punishment?
Voters in California, Oklahoma, and Nebraska will all consider measures that could see the end of the death penalty in their states, a symptom of changing national attitudes towards capital punishment.
Public support for the death penalty dropped to just below 50 percent in September, according to a Pew Research Center report, reaching the deepest nadir that Pew has seen in decades. That same study found that 42 percent of respondents oppose the death penalty.
In some states, such as California, experts say that the public is aware that death penalty sentences have become more symbolic than anything else, with few executions actually occurring.
“The public knows these are not being carried out,” said Riverside county, California, district attorney Michael Hestrin in an interview with The Washington Post. “What has happened is we’ve evolved to have a symbolic death penalty, where the jury is maybe handing down a death sentence to express their outrage at the crime, but sort of – and again, I’m speculating – but perhaps knowing that the sentence isn’t going to be carried out.”
One quarter of the country’s death row inmates currently reside in California, making California’s ballot measure especially relevant. California voters rejected one attempt to repeal the death penalty four years ago, in 2012. Now, the state’s ballot contains two propositions that would speed up the death penalty appeal process, and replace the current death sentence with life without parole.
In Nebraska, some voters have been perplexed by the wording of that state’s death penalty question, which reflects the state's back-and-forth relationship with the death penalty. State legislators had voted to do away with death sentences in 2015, but Governor Pete Ricketts subsequently vetoed that measure. State lawmakers then overrode Ricketts's veto, but Ricketts followed up by getting the current question on the ballot which would allow voters – by voting "repeal" – to restore the death penalty. A vote for "retain" means keeping the legislation which would eliminate the death penalty.
Oklahoma's vote is also informed by the state's troubled history with the death penalty, particularly after the state's bungled attempt to execute Clayton Lockett in 2014. That attempt, which ended in Mr. Lockett's eventual death 45 minutes after the lethal injection, was followed by a Supreme Court case brought by death row prisoners, who alleged that the state's method of execution constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
If Oklahoma voters vote in favor of the state's Question 776, they will support a constitutional amendment that would declare that the death penalty is not cruel and unusual punishment.
The executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, Robert Dunham, told Time that Oklahoma's measure is the "first time that any state constitution would seek to prevent the state courts from enforcing constitutional prohibitions in capital cases."
While it is not yet clear how these three states will vote, executions have declined around the country in recent years, with just 17 executions thus far this year.
Just last month, The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson reported on Florida's highest court's decision to change longstanding death penalty rules:
In a 5-2 vote, the state's highest court mandated that a jury must be unanimous in arriving at a death sentence in order for a convicted person to be assigned to the state’s death row. Florida is only one of three states – including Alabama and Delaware – that have allowed jury dissent in the death penalty phase.
Friday's ruling amounts to a “major shift in Florida jurisprudence,” Florida public defender Nancy Daniels told Jacksonville’s News 4 Channel. “The Hurst opinion from today makes it clear that the whole job a jury has to do has to be unanimous."