Second Thoughts: Americans' Views on the Death Penalty at the Turn of the Century
64 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2001
Between 1996 and 2001 American support for the death penalty showed a marked decline from the extraordinarily high levels that had persisted over the previous fifteen years. We argue that the falling crime rates of the 1990s were an important enabling condition for this change, but are not sufficient to explain it. Drawing on theory and research in attitude change, we argue that three additional factors made change possible. First, the public was exposed to new information, suggesting that the conviction of innocent people was shockingly common in capital trials, and that DNA testing could provide scientific proof of their innocence in some cases. Second, this information was organized into a compelling new script, depicting incompetent defense lawyers, lazy or dishonest police and prosecutors, and blameless citizens spending years on death row for other people's crimes. Third, the possibility of a moratorium on executions offered a new option, allowing people to reconsider their attitudes without reversing their positions. Equally significant were changes in the socio-political context of the 1990s. With near unanimity in support for the death penalty, there was no serious controversy to keep the issue alive as a matter of private concern or public debate, and it faded from the national political agenda. As a consequence, support for the death penalty is no longer a defining credential for conservatism; in the new political climate conservatives as well as liberals can express doubts and criticisms, and some have. The net result is an atmosphere conducive to change.
JEL Classification: K14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation