Mixed Views on the Death Penalty
No modern debate in America is as muddled by facts as that of the death penalty.
For a long time, the contentious issue of deterrencewhether the threat of capital punishment prevented homicideswas at the center of the debate, serving as a core justification for proponents. Meanwhile, the opposition cited a mounting body of evidence that debunked the claim.
New data this week is not likely to do much to clear things up. A poll from the Death Penalty Information Center, a clearinghouse for data on executions and public opinion on capital punishment, found that only 38 percent of respondents believed that the death penalty deters would-be murderers. The poll, conducted in March, surveyed 1,000 adults and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Meanwhile, a widely discussed Associated Press article on Monday drew attention to a series of published studies by economists that report statistical evidence in favor of deterrence.
"I don't think we're close" to a consensus, said DPIC Executive Director Richard Dieter. "I've been reading the studies for years, and they go both ways. They're getting to a high level of expertise in terms of criticizing one other."
"The basic criticism of these studies is not that there are different statistical models. It is that the structure of the information is such that you can't reach any conclusion," says University of Michigan Law Prof. Samuel Gross, who has studied capital punishment for years.
While support for capital punishment is on the decline, it remains much higher among those who believe in deterrence, suggesting a shift in justification away from a "for the good of society" argument. The DPIC poll found that 62 percent of people still favor the death penalty as a possible punishment for those convicted of murder.
A more compelling reason for opposing the death penalty, many argue, is widespread belief that innocent people have been executed. "The lack of faith in deterrence has been involved in the debate, but it has not dominated it," says David Elliot, spokesman for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "I honestly believe innocence is a more salient factor."
Still, the belief that innocent people have been executed has not yet spelled the end of support for the death penalty in the United States. As one proponent, Marquette University political scientist John McAdams, points out: "If you look at Gallup questions, clear majorities of Americans believe innocent people have been put on death row and even executed, but they still support it."