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Republicans at Debate Cheer Executions—but the Death Penalty Is in Decline | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Republicans at Debate Cheer Executions—but the Death Penalty Is in Decline

At the close of last night’s GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Library, Gov. Rick Perry was asked to defend his record of sending 234 prisoners to their deaths during his tenure in office (a modern record, but following the tradition of George W. Bush). The question alone brought applause from the audience, and then cheers erupted when Perry promised more of the “ultimate justice” for other cons.

Numerous bloggers and commentators on the left have responded with angry outcries. To cite just one: Will Bunch, the popular Attytood blogger, called it “sickening” and “a pathetic new low in American politics.” Glenn Greenwald wrote a column titled “Cheering for State-Imposed Death.”

Yes, the death penalty retains strong support in the United States, particularly among GOPers, when polls put the question to a straight-up-and-down vote. However, for many years now, when Americans are given the option of ordering life without parole instead, support for capital punishment drops significantly. Indeed, in many states, life without parole has replaced or virtually replaced executions, which have declined in the United States (if not in Texas) over the past decade. In 1998, the total stood at ninety-eight executions. Last year that was down to forty-six.

I authored a book about the current death penatly debate, with wider psychological issues, with Robert Jay Lifton, titled Who Owns Death? Here is what we wrote several years ago, accurately predicting the decline in the number of executions, leading eventually to a very low number or even aboliton.

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The prevailing wisdom—that America is fiercely in favor of executions—is dead wrong. You’d never know it from the views expressed by most political figures and media pundits, but many Americans are uncomfortable with the notion of the state as killer, and this number increases with every death row inmate released when new evidence establishes his innocence. Most Americans now prefer another method to punish the wrongdoer and protect society: life without parole.

After talking with scholars, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, prison officials and murder victim families, we have concluded that even as America executes prisoners at an appallingly high rate, the death penalty’s days are numbered. The public still embraces the death penalty in theory, but looks at it with an increasingly critical eye. That’s one reason California, for example, has had several hundred prisoners on death row for a decade or more but has executed only a few since 1980.

Although polls are drifting in the anti–death penalty direction, lawmakers and candidates continue to embrace the death penalty, convinced it would be political suicide to act otherwise. But they are increasingly reluctant to carry on their own shoulders the moral and psychological burden of state killing. A recent Gallup poll found support for capital punishment at its lowest level in nineteen years, down to 66 percent today. Support plummets when tough alternative sentencing, such as life without parole, is an option.

Until recently, in most states, there was no such thing as true “life without parole.” Even convicted murderers often emerged from prison eventually. The public knew this. In recent years, however, more than two-thirds of the states, including California, have enacted procedures for sentencing some murderers to life without parole with no chance that they will ever get out. Many recent polls have shown that support for the death penalty dropsbelow 50 percent when those polled were asked to choose between execution or life without parole for convicted killers.

The growing support for life without parole signals the beginning of the end for capital punishment in our society. The number of those opposed or ambivalent about executions will grow so large that the US Supreme Court, or dozens of state legislatures, will, one day, move against executions.

Even if opposition to the death penalty does not reach majority levels, that doesn’t mean that executions can’t be outlawed in America. Capital punishment had majority support in many Western nations, such as France, England and Canada, at the time they abolished the death penalty, and yet there was no widespread protest.

Some of the trends that led other countries to abolition are occurring in America, including the growing number of legislators who are speaking against the death penalty, and outrage over the possible execution of innocent people, especially as DNA evidence has come into play. Evolving support for life without parole as a preferred alternative to executions could change the way judges, lawmakers and the media respond to this issue on every important level, especially if new cases of innocent prisoners on death row come to light. This will foster the growing realization that, since the justice system can never be 100 percent right, it must not be allowed to administer a punishment that’s 100 percent irreversible. America would then join most of the modern industrial world, which has abandoned capital punishment as a savage relic of a less enlightened age.

Greg Mitchell’s latest book is Atomic Cover-Up.

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