Surber on the Death Penalty

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

In making a strange point about public support for the death penalty versus support for the war in Iraq, Don Surber notes a new poll showing that 62 percent of Americans support the death penalty, and writes:

We committed to Iraq based on 73% support 4 years ago. We cannot renege on a whim.

The death penalty is another matter. It fell out of favor, but if a majority of Americans now believe it is the right thing to do, perhaps we should repeal the repeal in states that had abandoned it.

At any rate, it is interesting when the media embraces the popularity of a political cause. We often here the “unpopular war” but seldom “the popular death penalty.”

Well first of all, whether or not to impose the death penalty is a decision left to the states, save for federal capital cases. Unless Surber wants to federalize all violent crime, we don’t live in a system where a majority of the country gets to tell every state what sentences it ought to impose on its criminals (though, sadly, we’re certainly seem headed in that direction). National defense, on the other hand, is of course policy inescapably federal in nature.

But Surber also didn’t mention what else the poll said:

The poll also showed about 87 percent believe an innocent person has been executed in the last 15 years, and 58 percent think there should be a moratorium on executions while wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences are investigated.


Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said they did not think reforms would totally eliminate wrongful convictions and wrongful executions.

Since 1973, 124 people have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence was uncovered.

The survey showed a majority of people did not think a possible death sentence would deter potential murderers.

So while a majority of Americans do favor the death penalty in a hypothetical system where they could be certain no innocent people would be executed, nearly nine in ten don’t think we have such a system, seven in ten don’t think we’ll ever have one, and nearly six in ten support a complete moratorium on the death penalty until we can ensure such a system exists. Which–again–seven in ten believe will never happen.

This is hardly evidence of overwhelming public support for the death penalty. I too would support the death penalty in a world where we could be certain it would only be administered to those guilty of murder, with no possibility for error. I don’t think fallible human beings are capable of such a system, and I certainly don’t think the government is. And as we’ve seen in Illinois, Texas, and in the 300-plus exonerations won by the Innocence Project, our justice system is a long, long way from anything resembling perfect.

Consequently, I don’t support the death penalty. Seems to me those poll results indicate that’s also where most of the public is on this issue, too.

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