Is the Death Penalty Dying?

Washington became the eighth state in 10 years to suspend the death penalty, as growing numbers of Americans are opposing the practice.

A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. 
National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Feb. 13, 2014, midnight

The im­me­di­ate con­sequence of Wash­ing­ton Gov. Jay Inslee’s de­cision to sus­pend the state’s death pen­alty Tues­day fits in­to a na­tion­al trend. Eight states in the past dec­ade have rolled back the death pen­alty, an ac­cel­er­ated pace mim­ick­ing the rap­idly chan­ging pub­lic opin­ion sur­round­ing same-sex mar­riage that star­ted at the same time.

Pub­lic opin­ion over these two cul­tur­al wedge is­sues of the 1990s has changed dra­mat­ic­ally since that time. And in blue states, both pub­lic opin­ion and pub­lic policy have moved sig­ni­fic­antly since Bill Clin­ton said Demo­crats “should no longer feel guilty about pro­tect­ing the in­no­cent” with cap­it­al pun­ish­ment. (To prove he was tough on crime, Clin­ton left the cam­paign trail in 1992 to preside over the ex­e­cu­tion of con­victed mur­der­er Rickey Ray Rect­or.) Clin­ton also later signed the De­fense of Mar­riage Act bar­ring fed­er­al re­cog­ni­tion of same-sex mar­riages two dec­ades ago.

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Now, more than 100 mil­lion people live in states without the death pen­alty. Like Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon’s death-pen­alty roll­back is a pause, not a full re­peal: Gov. John Kitzhaber an­nounced a morator­i­um on ex­e­cu­tions in 2011. Six oth­er states have per­man­ently ended cap­it­al pun­ish­ment since 2004. New York kicked things off with a court de­cision that year find­ing cap­it­al pun­ish­ment un­con­sti­tu­tion­al, a ver­dict fi­nal­ized in 2007. That’s the year New Jer­sey en­acted the coun­try’s first death-pen­alty re­peal le­gis­la­tion in dec­ades. New Mex­ico, Illinois, Con­necti­c­ut, and Mary­land all fol­lowed suit in the last sev­en years. No states had moved to undo their death pen­al­ties in the 20 years be­fore New York did a dec­ade ago.

The same day that Inslee an­nounced his de­cision in Wash­ing­ton, a state House com­mit­tee in New Hamp­shire voted 14-3 to ad­vance a death-pen­alty re­peal bill there. Ac­cord­ing to the Con­cord Mon­it­or, some of the sup­port­ers had pre­vi­ously voted against re­peal­ing cap­it­al pun­ish­ment.

Wash­ing­ton’s move is a tem­por­ary one, but Inslee said Tues­day that a goal of his de­cision was to push the state to de­cide more per­man­ently if it still wants to im­pose death on some crim­in­als. “With my ac­tion today I ex­pect Wash­ing­ton state will join a grow­ing na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion about cap­it­al pun­ish­ment,” Inslee said in a speech. “I wel­come that and I’m con­fid­ent that our cit­izens will en­gage in this very im­port­ant de­bate.”

Richard Di­eter, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Death Pen­alty In­form­a­tion Cen­ter, said states that im­pose morator­i­ums of­ten go on to ab­ol­ish the death pen­alty en­tirely. “New Jer­sey had a morator­i­um and even­tu­ally be­came an ab­ol­i­tion state,” Di­eter said. “Illinois took 11 years and a num­ber of gov­ernors be­fore they ab­ol­ished it, but it did end up that way. But there have been states where ex­e­cu­tions were on hold and they got back to them. One gov­ernor doesn’t con­trol things.”

Sup­port for the death pen­alty for murders, which peaked at 80 per­cent in 1994, ac­cord­ing to Gal­lup, has de­clined markedly since. The last time the polling com­pany meas­ured pub­lic opin­ion, in Oc­to­ber, sup­port was down to 60 per­cent, the low­est mark since the 1970s.

While sup­port for cap­it­al pun­ish­ment trends down­ward, sup­port for same-sex mar­riage has swung up at about the same rate, from 27 per­cent in 1996 to 54 per­cent last year, again ac­cord­ing to Gal­lup. And again, 17 mostly Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing states have moved to al­low same-sex mar­riages, start­ing with Mas­sachu­setts via a court de­cision in 2004.

Both over­lap­ping col­lec­tions of states — those without a death pen­alty and those with same-sex mar­riage — are clustered in the North­east and Up­per Mid­w­est and on the West Coast. Pres­id­ent Obama won every state that leg­al­ized same-sex mar­riage in both 2008 and 2012 and re­cor­ded the same per­fect re­cord in the states that have rolled back cap­it­al pun­ish­ment, too.

So far, Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing states haven’t joined the last dec­ade worth of activ­ity on the death pen­alty and same-sex mar­riage, re­flect­ing how pub­lic opin­ion on both is­sues does re­main po­lar­ized. But the burst of le­gis­la­tion, court de­cisions, and gubernat­ori­al de­cisions in these blue states demon­strate how these two “cul­ture war” is­sues of two dec­ades past have joined the polit­ic­al main­stream.

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