This May, a Gallup poll showed that only 58% of respondents find the death penalty morally acceptable, a 7% drop from last year and the lowest number since the morality question was first asked in 2001.
This follows a 2010 poll from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) that showed, when given choices, two-thirds support alternatives to the death penalty. Gallup’s non-morality based poll on the death penalty in 2011, which didn’t offer alternatives, still showed the lowest support for capital punishment since 1972. That poll was conducted soon after the controversial September 21st execution of Troy Davis despite serious doubts about his guilt.
The question of innocence
Is the drop in belief in the morality of the death penalty related to a growing belief that the innocent can be executed? There have been 140 people exonerated from U.S. death row since 1973.
Troy Davis is not the only person who might have been innocent and executed. A few weeks ago a new report was released that detailed how Texas very likely executed an innocent man in 1989 while allowing the guilty party to continue terrorizing his community.
Are the errors in the system piling up to the point where its morality is being called into question?
Besides the possibility of executing the innocent, people could be turning away from the death penalty because of the pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty.
The single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victims. Of all inmates put to death, 77% killed white victims but overall about half of murder victims are black. With the legacy of racism hanging over our criminal justice system, perhaps more people are seeing that it’s wrong to apply the ultimate punishment under this shadow.
If killing is wrong, why do we kill?
Or maybe the death penalty is losing moral support because it just sends the wrong message to society. The classic death penalty abolition refrain “why do we kill people to show killing people is wrong?” may seem like an oversimplified statement of a complex issue, but it’s still a vital question. When you’re doing something as severe as killing a person, you’d better have a good reason.
If you can’t answer the “why” question about the death penalty, then you have to question its morality.