Monday, June 24, 2002

The Supreme Court has just made two rulings in one week affecting the death penalty. One will certainly curtail use of the death penalty because it forbids the death penalty for retarded persons. The other could have the long-term effect of either increasing or decreasing death penalties, depending on whether juries assign the death sentence more often than judges do. However, in the short term it is likely to have the effect of reducing death sentences, as condemned prisoners appeal death sentences given by judges. Whether their appeal leads to another trial or commuting sentence to life, there will be fewer death sentences carried out.

Is support for the death penalty waning, or is the Supreme Court bucking popular opinion? The death penalty has long had popular support. The trend of the news at the Death Penalty Info Center implies that is dropping, particularly a New Jersey survey which shows a slight drop (perhaps from 65% or 63% to 60% support depending on where you look). Support among Republicans is high at 73%.

The survey is very interesting in the different results polled depending on how the question is asked. There seem to be many respondents who do not oppose the death penalty, yet prefer life in prison over a death sentence as the penalty for murder. Support for a moratorium on death penalties is quite high at 66%, meaning that many respondants who support the death penalty also support a moratorium!

I'd note that both the Death Penalty Info site and the survey seem to be run by folk who oppose the death penalty. For a look into how the news is presented by the other side, see Pro-Death Penalty (it doesn't seem to have been updated recently, but I couldn't find a more up-to-date pro-capital-punishment site this morning). Another survey linked there has the latest two polls showing increasing support for the death penalty (+3% from 05/01 to 10/01, and +4% from 10/01 to 05/02).

Given that theoretical support for the death penalty remains the majority, but actual support for restricting use of the death penalty is also high, it seems the Supreme Court is following popular opinion very nicely.

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