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Why Capital Punishment Persists

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  1. Why Capital Punishment Persists Matthew B. Robinson, PhD Professor of Government & Justice Studies Appalachian State University

  2. American History and Culture • “The U.S. has a long culture of violence, individualism, and revenge that fits well with capital punishment.” • America’s “history and culture (especially in the South)” helps us understand why capital punishment persists in the United States, “which raises the question as to why the history and culture in Europe has not produced ongoing support for the death penalty ... .”

  3. American History and Culture • “Culturally, we differ in so many ways from other western industrialized nations that it is difficult to compare them. We place tremendous value on individualism, and we hold the individual accountable. We are a country founded on violence that has grown through violence. And, we have the strong fundamentalist background that is blaming and punishing. The list goes on and on.”

  4. American History and Culture • “The death penalty is today largely a ‘Southern thing.’ Northern states that still have it typically have had large movements of Southerners into it in the last hundred years. I’m not a Southerner; so, I have trouble understanding what makes the death penalty so attractive to them. I honestly don’t think it is racism. I’m inclined to think, rather, that Southerners favor the death penalty for the same reason they murder each other more frequently than Northerners (and why they make better soldiers). They like bloodshed. There is no doubt one or more dissertations waiting to written on this subject.”

  5. American History and Culture • “The existence of slavery formalized and legitimated separate, unequal justice systems. The idea carried on after Abolition in laws passed by both Southern and non-Southern states giving African-Americans lesser access to justice, such as inability to testify against Euro-Americans or serve as jurors.”

  6. American History and Culture • “Frank Zimring’s recent book The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment has probably the best analysis. Although the military, federal government, and 38 states do have the death penalty, it is important to note that the geographic and cultural distribution of executions is not nearly as widespread. Over 90% of post-Furman executions have occurred in states that had slavery in law or practice in 1860. The modern use of the death penalty is very deeply rooted in the history of slavery.” … • This has been “backed up with more recent research employing sophisticated multiple regression techniques [that] confirms the connections between the death penalty and slavery, race and lynching in the U.S.”

  7. American History and Culture • “The death penalty exists in the U.S. because of social norms and politicians. Our society has a desire to inflict suffering on others. There is a norm of individualism rather than group good. There is a desire for blood in our society. When things go wrong, there is usually a demand to punish someone.” This is linked with America’s “long history of violence” which is “one of the reasons for the desire for handguns in this nation.”

  8. American History and Culture • “Capital punishment in the United States persists mostly for historical, political, ideological, religious, economical, and social reasons – having little to do with safety or practicality. Realistically, I consider capital punishment one of the biggest demons that the world has ever invented. Now, what is the driving force behind this demon? The most powerful single driving force is indifference.”

  9. Politics • “It is politically popular to support death, in all but a few states it is virtual political suicide to oppose it.” • “Politicians play to law & order / death penalty card very effectively (politics of fear).” • “In European nations, political parties control politics and strove to improve society regardless of the poll numbers. In the U.S., politicians push the death penalty as a simple solution to the crime problem. They do not care if it works or not. They only wish simple ideas to push on the public in their bids to be elected or reelected. This in turn increases the desire for capital punishment among the public.”

  10. Politics • “I feel that the death penalty persists in the United States for political reasons – the public is completely misinformed about the problems associated with capital punishment and politicians use that to their advantage – they are seen as 'tough on crime' if they are in favor of capital punishment [and] the public appreciates that.”

  11. Politics • “I think the [death penalty] is a political issue – those who oppose the [death penalty] are labeled as 'liberal' and 'soft on crime', etc. and are accused of coddling murderers. The U.S. occupies a unique position – promoting justice and democracy and fairness while at the same time executing its own citizens, often in the face of documented problems. The need or desire to be tough on crime has been around for decades, but there is an unwillingness to go out on a limb and admit that, perhaps, tough on crime policies may be counterproductive – if tough on crime isn't working, the instinct is to simply get tougher. Is there a way to step out of this mind set and address the real problems that affect crime in this country – poverty, unemployment, frustration/hopelessness?”

  12. Politics • “There are numerous explanations/hypotheses for this. In today's political-cultural context, I think that crime and (and now terrorism) has replaced communism as our enemy. Every culture has a sense of the 'other' that they cannot objectively or rationally assess and respond to. Politicians and the media fuel the public's anger and direct our collective conscience against particular groups as responsible for our problems. I believe the need for reciprocity is fairly innate to humans as is sense of justice, but other countries have redirected those emotions towards other things. Individuals naturally feel outrage and a desire for retribution when an individual does something horrible. It is just an appropriate that such individuals suffer some negative consequences and that society be protected from them. I am not sure that the extreme of capital punishment is necessary or even [a] beneficial response.”

  13. Politics • “While I don’t think that [capital punishment] is still used to intimidate and repress, it certainly is used to win elections, usually by discrediting the opposition. Paradoxically, a participatory rather than representative democracy has made public opinion easy to manipulate. The reason, I think, is that interest groups, identity politics, now rule. This situation does not foster discussion -- and don’t get me started on the spinelessness of most media. Occasionally in the past we’ve had a true party system based on issues, and at those moments it was possible for leaders (Lincoln, F. Roosevelt, Truman) to inject debate and apply a measure of principle.”

  14. Punishment • “Vengeance – the death penalty allows US citizens to 'get even' with murderers. That is, we kill them to make ourselves feel better, not to bring closure, and no to re-balance the moral order. • “Many citizens do believe in a strict retributive view that those who kill have forfeited that right to life.” • Capital punishment persists due to “continued support for retribution and deterrence (that is, death penalty viewed as 'just' ... criminal gets what he/she deserves) and that it deters others.”

  15. Public Support • “The populace has endorsed it. In other countries, where it has been abolished (i.e., Canada & England) it is typically abolished by the elites (i.e., courts), while the citizens, as a whole, still generally support the sanction.” • “Because it would seem that most people in the U.S. want the [death penalty] as a potential punishment for very serious criminals.”

  16. Public Support • “We continue to use capital punishment in the U.S. because the majority of the citizens support its use. It seems to me that our society does not see the administration of justice. Most criminals disappear into the prison or other parts of the justice mechanisms. When an executions occurs citizens see justice in operation and feel something tangible is being done to 'dangerous' criminals. For the average citizen it validates the justice system.”

  17. Public Support • “As Justice Marshall noted in Furman, people do not understand the reality of the death penalty (and politicians work to keep them in ignorance).” • “I strongly believe in the Marshall hypothesis – If the public was fully informed about the problems associated with capital punishment, a majority would oppose it.”

  18. Public Support • "Public opinion continues to support it, and legislators in the U.S., unlike their counterparts in other countries, are unwilling to go against what is perceived as the public's wishes on this matter. That the public is largely ignorant about the way capital punishment in this country is actually administered does not seem to matter.” • "Simple: ignorance. Which side of the debate you're on is often like which baseball team you support: arbitrary [and] ignorant of the facts.” • The death penalty is “held in place emotionally not rationally.”

  19. Crime Rates • "American states continue capital punishment because of “[h]igh rates of predatory (robbery, rape) murder & serial killing. Jurisdictions (states) that do not have capital punishment as an option have the lowest rates of these types of murder (with the exception of Michigan, Detroit in particular) and hence the least need for the sanction. Those jurisdictions with the highest rate of predatory murder use the death penalty most often.”

  20. Crime Rates • “Capital punishment has ... always been seen as more necessary for controlling homicide in this country. Certainly the world-wide revulsion against the brutal history of Nazi Germany caused a universal reaction against the fundamental principle of state-sanctioned killing. The question is why this revulsion did not extend to the United States and cause the same abolition of capital punishment that occurred in other industrialized nations. One naturally looks for historical factors that set the U.S. apart. Aside from the prolonged frontier era ... another factor was the prolonged slavery era that resulted, among other things, in quite a high proportion of black people in the population relative to other economically comparable nations. Perhaps another major factor in the important role of capital punishment in this nation was a perceived need to keep slaves or ex-slaves ‘under control.’”

  21. Religion • “I am convinced that religion, peculiarly enough, plays a supportive role, despite the fact that most mainline religions condemn (the church leaders may say one thing, but the congregation believes something entirely different)." • “High religiosity might also have a role to play. While Jesus tells his follows to no longer follow 'the law of Moses,' i.e., the lex talionis, in the Gospel of Matthew, his evangelical followers today don't seem to have noticed." • “Support for the [death penalty] correlates strongly with religious beliefs. This is undoubtedly the course of much public support. Why the intellectual elite has not overridden the public, as in Europe, is another matter."

  22. Government Structure • “US is more democratic than Europe. High violent crime rates in [the] US lead [the] public to support [the] death penalty ... public will can prevail in [the] US because of [federalism] (state control of administration of criminal justice).” • “Primarily because our legal system is driven by local politicians, as opposed to the national bureaucracies of other countries. In other countries, where public support for the death penalty is comparable to the United States, national leaders have moved beyond death – they know it is a bad idea, impossible to administer fairly, rarely used, ineffective, and really a distraction. But our system is driven by local prosecutors who do not see the big picture. They continue to sell death to the local people who end up on their juries.”

  23. Government Structure • “Because of a weak federal government, both legal and extralegal execution were allowed to be integral to forming local and state governments. Examples are the South Carolina Regulators (18th century), San Francisco vigilantes (1850s); Ku Klux Klan of the late 1860s.”

  24. So Why DoesCapital Punishment Persist?Which are Relevant??? • History/Culture of Violence? • Politics? • Critical Part of Punishment? • Public Support? • Crime Rates? • Religion? • Government Structure?

  25. What is going to happen? • New Jersey … • New York … • New Mexico … • North Carolina …