“I think we’re at the end of an era. If you look at polling results over the last several cycles, this is the direction we’ve been moving in,” says Dr. Stacy L. Mallicoat, the head of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton (and a DPF board member).
Mallicoat is referring to the recent Pew Research Center poll that found that support for the death penalty in the United States is the lowest it’s been in more than 40 years. According to the poll, fewer than half, 49 percent, favor the death penalty, while 42 percent oppose it. In the past 18 months, support has dropped seven percentage points.
Mallicoat says the downward trend is the result of several factors: an increasing number of states are abolishing the death penalty, DNA evidence is resulting in an increasing number of wrongly accused death row inmates being exonerated, lethal drugs are almost impossible to come by, the evidence of racial disparity, and the fact that the death penalty is charged arbitrarily.
Pew found that by more than two-to-one, Republicans (72 percent) support capital punishment as opposed to Democrats (34 percent). And, according to Pew, “For the first time in decades, independents are as likely to oppose the use of the death penalty (45 percent) as they are to favor it,” a drop of 13 points since last year.
Republicans may support it, but Mallicoat says an increasing number of conservatives are shifting their thinking on the issue. “Many of the problems with the death penalty are problems conservatives are concerned about; things like the inefficiencies in the system, the expense of trials and appeals, a system that is too broken to fix, and they are beginning to realize the cost may not be worth it,” she says.
Mallicoat says awareness of the death penalty and the problems inherent with it, are at an all-time high. She points to the number of well-received documentaries and dramas on TV that have focused on wrongful convictions as being responsible for much of that awareness. “Something has really seeped into the collective consciousness of society” about the high risk of wrongful convictions, and the possibility that innocent men and women have been executed, she says. “These conversations aren’t just going on in classrooms or in political circles, they’re becoming a part of pop culture.”