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.
* * *
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.