November 28, 2005

Is Fear of Executing the Innocent Driving Down Death Penalty Support?

Hatched by Dafydd

This appears to be the general worry underlying Patterico's proposal, over on his blog almost two years ago, that we only allow executions when defendants are found guilty "beyond all possible doubt," rather than merely "beyond reasonable doubt." He and I have been debating this point; but I wanted to get at the root concern -- which in fact should be thought-provoking even to folks who are otherwise uninterested in the back and forth. Simply put, is the public rejecting the death penalty because of a fear that some innocent person could be executed?

Not to be coy, I haven't been able to find any evidence at all that they are. There was a period in the mid- to late-1990s where it arguably could have been; there was a strong "innocence" movement then and a significant drop in support for the death penalty. But support began to move upwards after 9/11, and the late-1990s drop was entirely erased by 2003. Since then, we have returned to 2001 levels; but this cannot be explained by any "innocence project" cause célèbre.

Reuters carried a story that expressed the meme that the MSM has been flogging for years now:

A Gallup poll last month showed 64 percent of Americans favored the death penalty -- the lowest level in 27 years, down from a high of 80 percent in 1994.

"There's now considerable public skepticism about whether all those being executed are really guilty and that has cast doubt on the whole system," said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center. [Emphasis added here and all subsequent unless otherwise noted. -- the Mgt.]

Several points to note in counterargument:

  • The Death Penalty Information Center is a notoriously strident anti-death penalty organization that is not only against the DP but even against incarceration itself.

Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship, a new report by The Sentencing Project, examines the financial and social costs of incarceration, and evaluates the limited effectiveness it has on crime rates. The report notes that the number of people incarcerated in the United States has risen by more than 500% over the past three decades, up from 330,000 people in 1972 to 2.1 million people today. Though an increase in the number of offenders who are incarcerated has played a modest role in the nation's decreasing crime rate, the report notes that this policy is subject to decreasing effectiveness in the long-term. The Sentencing Project warns that increasing incarceration while ignoring more effective approaches to preventing crime will impose a heavy burden upon the courts, corrections systems, and communities, while providing a marginal impact on crime. The group recommends that policymakers further assess this problem and adopt more balanced crime control policies that provide resources for crime-prevention efforts such as programming, treatment, and community support.

The Sentencing Project is a national nonprofit organization that works for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting alternatives to incarceration, reforms in sentencing law and practice, and better use of community-based services and institutions. ("Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship," The Sentencing Project, 2005). See The Sentencing Project's Web site. See also, Sentencing and Resources.

  • Support for the death penalty is always high but fluctuates quite a bit from year to year -- month to month, even. These fluctuations cannot be correlated to provable cases of innocent people being executed.

The soundbite here -- "lowest level in 27 years, down from a high of 80 percent in 1994" -- is very misleadingly stated, ignoring the fact that it dropped to about 65% approval in 2001, rose to 74% in 2003, and has now dropped back down to 64% in October 2005. In other words, support for the death penalty skews widely up and down. From the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty:

Results of Gallup Poll on Death Penalty
Gallup Organization November 16, 2004
Who Supports the Death Penalty?

Since 1936, Gallup has been asking Americans, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" The percentage of Americans in favor of the death penalty has fluctuated significantly over the years, ranging from a low of 42% in 1966, during a revival of the anti-death penalty movement, to a high of 80% in 1994. More recently, public opinion on the death penalty has been more stable, with upward of 2 in 3 Americans supporting it.

Here is a 2005 abstract from Gallup itself; the full poll, which found support for the death penalty above the 74% of May 2003, requires a $95 subscription, and I ain't that interested!

Gallup's annual Moral Values and Beliefs poll finds Americans slightly more positive in their orientation toward the death penalty than they have been in the past several years. Compared with a year ago, more Americans say they support the death penalty as punishment for murder, more choose it over life imprisonment as the preferred punishment for murder, and more perceive that the death penalty is applied fairly in this country. A majority of Americans now say the death penalty is not imposed often enough. Perceptions that innocent people have been executed have fallen sharply.

So what is the claim? That people worried about innocents being put to death in 2001, so support dropped from 80% to 65%; but they changed their minds about the innocents being executed, so support rose to 74% just two years later; but then the fickle public flip-flopped back again about those poor innocents, so support dropped back down from 74% in May 2005 to 64% in October?

A far more likely scenario is that other confounding factors are at work, such as a fear of terrorism. The May 2001 poll was before 9/11, when we were still living in the world of the "peace dividend;" there were no more bears in the woods, and we had nothing to fear from criminals or terrorists.

But by the May, 2003 poll, after the war in Afghanistan and the beginning phase of the war in Iraq, terrorism was much on people's minds -- so support for the death penalty rose. Now, during recent polling, there is much skepticism about the Iraq war and the war on terror overall... so support is back down to the 2001 level.

Under this "event-driven" explanation of DP support, if Osama bin Laden were captured alive, I suspect support for the death penalty would skyrocket. But there doesn't seem to be any correlation whatsoever between support for the death penalty and the belief that innocent people are sometimes executed; that belief has been very high since at least the late 1990s.

It's possible that the drop in death-penalty support during the Clinton years, from 1994 to 2001, was due to the fear of innocents being executed; but if so, that fear was trumped by a fear of terrorism. There were no major "innocent executed" stories since the May, 2005 poll and and the most recent Gallup poll on the death penalty in October (the Ruben Cantu case Patterico discusses didn't hit the news until this month, long after the Gallup survey was taken in October).

There is thus no reason to suppose the return to 2001 levels of support from 2003 levels has anything to do with the fear of executing the innocent. We must look for other causes... of which I have suggested one; there are almost certainly others.

But the question that forms the title of this post can be fairly succinctly answered as No, there is no evidence that it has.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, November 28, 2005, at the time of 8:12 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Tommy V

I certianly can't speak for anyone else, but my thoughts on the death penalty have changed over the years. I no longer want the state to have the right to take the life of a human being. I just don't want the state to have that power. This has nothing to do with the scum bags on death row (how the hell do people morn for them?) or the fear of an innocent somehow making it through the process and being wrongly executed. I just want tangible, easily defined limits to state power.

Taking life is the ultimate power and I simply don't want the state to have it, despite all the richly deserving candidates.

The above hissed in response by: Tommy V [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 28, 2005 11:58 PM

The following hissed in response by: Patterico

Btw, I have a new post (second down on my site currently) that proposes a new and less radical suggestion for tightening up proof standards in death cases.

The above hissed in response by: Patterico [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 29, 2005 1:35 PM

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