Published: October 14, 2011 The New York Times
A new Gallup poll reports that support for the death penalty is at its lowest level since 1972. In fact, though, the decline, from a high of 80 percent in 1994 to 61 percent now, masks both Americans’ ambivalence about capital punishment and the country’s de facto abolition of the penalty in most places.
When Gallup gave people a choice a year ago between sentencing a murderer to death or life without parole, an option in each of the 34 states that have the death penalty, only 49 percent chose capital punishment.That striking difference suggests that more Americans are recognizing that killing a prisoner is not the only way to make sure he is never released, that the death penalty cannot be made to comply with the Constitution and that it is in every way indefensible. But there are other numbers that tell a more compelling story about the national discomfort with executions.
From their annual high points since the penalty was reinstated 35 years ago, the number executed has dropped by half, and the number sentenced to death has dropped by almost two-thirds. Sixteen states don’t allow the penalty, and eight of the states that do have not carried out an execution in 12 years or more.
There is more.Only one-seventh of the nation’s 3,147 counties have carried out an execution since 1976. Counties with one-eighth of the American population produce two-thirds of the sentences. As a result, the death penalty is the embodiment of arbitrariness. Texas, for example, in the past generation, has executed five times as many people as Virginia, the next closest state. But the penalty is used heavily in just four of Texas’s 254 counties.Opposition to capital punishment has built from the ground up. It is evident in the greater part of America’s counties where people realize that, in addition to being barbaric, capricious and prohibitively expensive, the death penalty does not reflect their values.