Rising public opposition to the death penalty has been one of the few liberal social trends in recent years. But there is some reason to wonder whether the public’s overwhelming enthusiasm for executing Timothy McVeigh will stall or possibly reverse this development. Every nationwide poll taken has found the vast majority of Americans favoring the execution, scheduled for May 16. This comes at a time when the same nationwide surveys are finding diminishing support for capital punishment since the early 1990’s. The Pew Center’s polls show backing for the death penalty slipping to 66 percent this year from a high of 80 percent in 1994. But our most recent survey also finds 75 percent favoring Timothy McVeigh’s execution.
A Gallup poll in April uncovered an even greater dissonance in opinion when fully 22 percent said they opposed the death penalty but wanted to see Mr. McVeigh die. Will these Americans, in light of the McVeigh case, turn back from their opposition to the death penalty in general?
I don’t believe they will. Growing reservations about capital punishment are now tied to broad social trends and new technologies that are raising doubts about the fairness of the process that sentences people to state-delivered deaths.
Opinion about capital punishment has ebbed and flowed with the country’s ideological swings and with fluctuations in the crime rate. In the 1950’s about two-thirds of the public favored capital punishment — a proportion similar to today’s. But by the mid 1960’s, the heyday of American liberalism, most people were opposed. Public support dropped to 42 percent, a 50-year low, in a 1966 Gallup poll. But reactions against social dislocations and rising crime rates drove support back up to 51 percent by the end of the 1960’s. Public enthusiasm for capital punishment increased steadily through the 1970’s and 1980’s in response to higher murder rates and as a reflection of more conservative times. By 1986, according to Gallup, support was 30 percentage points higher than it had been two decades earlier. It reached a high point of 80 percent in 1994, that very conservative year that saw the Republican Party capture Congress.
Since then, emerging doubts about fairness in the application of the death penalty have led to greater reservations about it. Reversals of death sentences after DNA testing have fueled concerns about the ultimate miscarriage of justice. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in July 2000 found the public sharply divided over whether the death penalty was applied fairly, and only 32 percent of respondents in an ABC News poll said they were very confident that those on death row were actually guilty. The polls also show public support for suspending the death penalty until its fairness can be studied.
At the same time, the public’s thinking about capital punishment as a deterrent to murder is changing. While the public still considers deterrence the primary justification for the death penalty, an ABC/Washington Post survey released last month found for the first time in 15 years that a majority did not believe the death penalty lowered the murder rate. This survey also showed that the public found retribution to be a considerably less powerful argument for capital punishment than deterrence.
Religious belief is becoming an important factor in the public’s reassessment of capital punishment. Pew Center surveys this year show that people most often cite their religious beliefs as a basis for their opposition. This is creating an unusual and robust coalition of opponents, bringing together political liberals, ethnic minority groups and social conservatives, including Catholics as well as white evangelical Protestants.
Timothy McVeigh may be the poster boy for capital punishment for the moment, but all the momentum is going the other way on this issue. The magnitude of his crime and his lack of remorse have enraged the public. But it is unlikely that the extensive coverage of his execution will actually reverse the new climate of opinion about capital punishment. If anything, it may well raise the profile of the issue, especially for the many Americans who now hold new reservations about the death penalty.