Public Opinion and the Death Penalty
Public Opinion and the Death Penalty
Public support for the death penalty has declined over the past decade, but polls reveal that the majority of Americans (approximately 65%) still support capital punishment for those convicted of murder. For those who have shifted away from the death penalty, one of the most commonly cited concerns is the growing number of deomonstrated instances of erroneous capital convictions, as evidenced by persons later found innocent and released from death row. Many also note the widespread availability of the alternative sentence of life without parole. In 1994, polls asking the appropriate punishment for murder found that 32% of those polled favored life without parole sentences, while 50% favored death. In 2004, support for life without parole had grown to 46%. In addition, public opinion regarding the deterrent effect of the death penalty - long the backbone of its support - has reversed itself in the last 20 years. In 1986, 61% believed the punishment to be an effective deterrent. In 2004, 62% believed that the death penalty did not deter crime. This shift in public opinion has contributed to a decrease in death sentences. For those who continue to support the death penalty, many believe that it is a way to provide closure for victims’ family members and to prevent those convicted of murder from posing a potential threat to prison employees and others with whom they may come into contact.
More than a decade after his capital conviction, new evidence casting doubt on Gary Graham’s guilt caught the attention of the public via media outlets throughout the United States and around the world. Though Texas reporters had covered the case since Graham was charged in 1981, a highly publicized 1993 complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund spawned a new wave of media coverage based on the issue of Graham’s possible innocence. The Legal Defefnse Fund’s complaint, filed just days before Graham’s first scheduled execution date, contended that Graham was on death row as a direct result of widespread racial discrimination within the Texas criminal justice system and the denial to adequate assistance of counsel for poor people facing criminal charges in Texas. The LDF claimed that the injustices in Graham’s case were just illustrative of the consequences of such a system, and that Texas was days away from executing an innocent person. When Graham’s execution was stayed, the media and the public continued to focus on Graham’s case for a number of reasons, including widespread interest in the issue of innocence and the emergence of new voices raising questions about the death penalty and Graham’s guilt.
During the two decades preceding the mid-1990's, more than 50 people had been freed from death row in the United States, including Kirk Bloodsworth, the first to be freed on the basis of DNA evidence. As a number of innocence cases emerged, media outlets devoted more time and resources to investigating the issue. For example, a groundbreaking 60 Minutes investigative report featured the case of Walter McMillian, a black man from Alabama who had been erroneously convicted of the murder of a white female after a trial that lasted only a day and a half. This report played a key role in McMillian’s exoneration in 1993. Reporters were eager to explore why innocent people were ending up on death row, and Graham’s case provided members of the media with an opportunity to examine this intriguing issue.
As Graham’s first execution date loomed, his attorneys and supporters took steps to put Graham’s case before another important forum – the American people. Tapping into the emergence of 24-hour news networks and broader use of new media – such as the Internet - to distribute news, those advocating against Graham’s execution hosted press conferences, provided news reporters with access to interviews with Graham, and enlisted the help of well-known civic leaders and celebrities to focus attention on the problems associated with the case.
For some, Graham’s case heightened already existing concerns about wrongful convictions around the nation and the need to take steps to address problems with the death penalty. Letters in support of granting Graham clemency were sent to the governor’s office; internet web sites following developments in the case were formed; and citizens organized a month-long series of public actions in preceeding his execution.
For others, the activities to halt Graham’s execution were simply tactics to delay justice from being done. As the number of death row exonerations grew, so did public skepticism about whether those freed from death row were released based on factual innocence or were freed due to a legal technicality. In the Graham case, prosecutors remained firm in their position that he was guilty and reiterated key eyewitness testimony that he was the person who killed Bobby Lambert. The unwavering first-hand accounts of the murder given by Bernadine Skillern, the state’s key eyewitness against Graham, became the backbone of efforts to ensure that Graham’s execution proceeded without delay. News outlets covered the case from both angles, and featured comments from those opposed to Graham’s execution and those in support of his execution.
Questions for Further Analysis:
- What impact, if any, has the emergence of 24-hour news outlets and the Internet had on the coverage of capital cases and the public’s perception of the death penalty?
- What role should celebrities or other well-known public figures play in the public’s ongoing debate about the death penalty? What role have these individuals played in other social movements throughout history, and what comparisons can be drawn between these movements and the nation’s capital punishment debate?
- What impact should public opinion have on a governor’s decision regarding clemency?
- Does the media have a responsibility to provide those who support and those who oppose a specific execution equal time?
- How has the issue of innocence impacted the nation’s perception of capital punishment?