Death penalty views shifting

Widespread publicity given this week to the execution of ex-gang leader and convicted murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams in California probably made many Americans think again about their views on capital punishment. Or did it? Are Americans’ views about the death penalty in transition, subject to new information or arguments? Or are opinions about capital punishment impervious to change?

Widespread publicity given this week to the execution of ex-gang leader and convicted murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams in California probably made many Americans think again about their views on capital punishment. Or did it? Are Americans’ views about the death penalty in transition, subject to new information or arguments? Or are opinions about capital punishment impervious to change?

Public opinion on most trendy issues is not worth considering. Voters know too little to merit much attention being given to their views. But the death penalty is different. Most Americans have well-thought-out and relatively stable views on the whole range of related issues. Do you favor or oppose the death penalty? Has administration of the death penalty been handled fairly, or not? Does the death penalty serve as a deterrent to crime, or not? For most of us, these are relatively easy questions to answer. We’ve thought about the issues, tested our views through discussions and firmed our beliefs.

The longest running time series on capital punishment is maintained by The Gallup Poll. The stability of Gallup’s results bolsters the notion that most Americans have settled views on this issue. Since 1976, Gallup has not recorded support for the death penalty below 62 percent. Typically, the percentage supporting capital punishment has been in the high 60s to low 70s.

The last Gallup sounding on the issue was taken in October of this year. In that survey, 64 percent were for the death penalty and 30 percent were against it. Six percent expressed no opinion. When that poll was released, some advocacy groups opposed to the death penalty hailed the results, saying that support for the death penalty was the lowest it had been in a quarter century. That grandiose interpretation of the poll results, of course, involved some political spin, but it’s entirely true. And it’s worth adding that the 30 percent opposing the death penalty represented only the second time since 1972 that opposition exceeded 28 percent. So something indeed may be happening regarding public opinion on the death penalty.

One factor in this shift is the visible role that DNA evidence has begun to play in the judicial process. DNA has proven just enough wrongful convictions to make more Americans suspicious. A May 2005 poll by Gallup found that 59 percent of Americans believed that an innocent man or woman had been wrongly executed in the past five years. On average, these skeptical Americans suspected that 10 to 11 percent of those executed are really innocent.

While DNA evidence and other belated discoveries of innocence will change a few hearts and minds about the appropriateness of the death penalty, these shifts are episodic, based on the latest headlines and stories. These provide no foundation for a permanent, longer-term transition in public opinion. That will only come about because of a growing culture of life in American politics.

I believe that more church-goers and people of faith are starting to make a connection between their opposition to abortion and euthanasia and their position on capital punishment. This is hard work for many, particularly for Republicans. It creates what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Polls routinely show that 80 percent of Republicans approve of the death penalty. So, to champion life imprisonment as an alternative to execution requires considerable courage for any Republican.

During my career, though, I have had several GOP clients comfortably opposed to the death penalty. Three-term Gov. John Engler of Michigan steadfastly opposed the death penalty. And four-term Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa opposed the death penalty, except in one limited circumstance, where witnesses are killed. Both men are Catholic, so they found it easy to reconcile their values with their politics.

More evangelical Christians will follow the lead of Catholics over the next decade. As in the 1960s and 1970s, the division of public opinion on the death penalty will narrow during the next decade.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.