Americans divided on capital punishment issue

Americans divided on capital punishment issue

Capital punishment has been used by the state of Alabama since the early 1800s. CW / Caroline Japal

Statistically speaking, Americans across the country seem to be less enthusiastic about the death penalty than they used to be. At the height of the 1990s, when a Republican Congress worked with a Democratic president to pass a major crime bill, support for capital punishment was at a record-high 80 percent, according to the Gallup polling company. But almost 20 years later, that number has fallen to around 60 percent, the most recent data from Gallup shows.

Such a statistical shift in public opinion could have an impact in the polls. For the states putting the death penalty on trial, the vote could be much different result in 2016 than it would have in 1996.

This year, voters in California will have the choice between dueling ballot initiatives on the topic of capital punishment. One, California’s Proposition 66, will offer Californians the option to speed up executions of those waiting on death row. According to the Los Angeles Times, this proposition is now facing large protest, with those in opposition believing that Proposition 62, which would ban the death penalty altogether, should be passed instead.

While putting the issue to a vote is democratic, experts at the University say it might not be constitutional.

“I have doubts concerning its constitutionality for a few reasons, in cases dealing with the means of execution, the Court has clarified what is and is not constitutional,” UA constitutional law professor Allen Linken said. “Pragmatically, it places burdens on trial courts that may 
not be feasible.”

Even where the death penalty is still in full force, numbers show that the rate at which people are being executed 
has slowed down.

According to The Texas Tribune, this year, Texas will execute its lowest number of people in 20 years. Seven people have faced execution in 2016, with only one more scheduled. This decline in executions is in part due to more appellate judges rescheduling or stopping executions, which has happened 15 times this year alone, the Tribune reported.

But not all of the change has been democratic. Some death penalty 
roll-back has come from state judges issuing rulings from the bench.

In August, the Delaware Supreme Court struck down its state’s death penalty statute, claiming that the sentencing procedures were unconstitutional. Around the same time, the Nebraska legislature voted to repeal the death penalty and override a gubernatorial veto of the bill.

But what about Alabama? The question still remains as to whether or not the Yellowhammer State’s policy will see any changes in the near future – let alone a statewide vote. A historical defender of capital punishment, Alabama has executed 53 people since the temporary ban on the death penalty in the U.S. ended in 1976. In that same time only five states – Texas, Virginia, Florida, Missouri and Oklahoma – have executed more.

While the issue is not on any ballots in Alabama, several UA campus voices weighed in on how the state might deal with the issue in the future.

“The opposition to the death penalty has already made its way here,” said Josh Shumate, a graduate student and vice president of UA Young Americans for Liberty. “It just takes a while [to see a difference] in conservative states 
like Alabama.”

Even if Alabama voters did democratically uphold the death penalty, the practice still faces many key constitutional questions. There is a debate of whether the practice itself is constitutional under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and whether the states or federal government should be in charge of setting the standards.

Civil libertarians and liberals have raised due process concerns surrounding capital punishment and especially with the speeding up of executions. According to Amnesty International, over 150 people have been released from death row after wrongful convictions. This includes Daniel Wade Moore, an Alabamian, who served seven years on death row until 256 pages of withheld evidence were released that proved his innocence.

Similarly, Alabamian Anthony Ray Hinton was wrongfully sentenced to death row, but his story had a happier ending. According to AL.com, Hinton spent 30 years in prison for two murders, but he was ultimately exonerated in April 2015.

Alabama is also the only state where judges frequently override a jury’s decision to not sentence someone to death.

“I believe the death penalty is constitutional and should be controlled by the states,” Shumate said. “However, in my opinion it gets bad with some states like Alabama who overuse it.”

Lobbying efforts to repeal the death penalty in Alabama are run largely by Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, which focuses on educating Alabama citizens on the problems surrounding death penalty convictions.

But those opposed to the current iteration of the death penalty offer differing solutions. Some advocate for the compete abolition of the practice, while others simply wish to reform the system. Many state governments that have recently repealed capital punishment have proposed that all death row inmates have their sentences changed to life without parole. Proponents of abolishing the death penalty point to how expensive it is for the state to execute someone and how much better that money could possibly be spent elsewhere.

To many, the death penalty would not be problematic if the system was implemented correctly. Many believe that a sizable portion of the pro-death penalty ideals will fade away over time, a “generational” issue.

“I believe the older generation follows the ‘eye for an eye’ mentality, while the younger generation tends to be more progressive-minded,” said Andrew Capecci, a senior majoring in finance. “To me, it is an ethical conflict whether to spare a man’s life based on the verdict of 12 random citizens.”

But experts say that Alabama’s conservative majority does not appear to be apt to vote away the death penalty any time soon.

“I have a tough time foreseeing Alabama lawmakers removing the death penalty from the books, even if there is dwindling support,” Linken said. “What may affect it most would be executive action by the Governor or the Supreme Court ruling it is systematically broken and declaring it is unconstitutional.”

Daniel Ashford, a senior majoring in finance and treasurer for the University’s Young Conservatives, echoed the position held by many in the Alabama electorate. Ashford is in favor of the death penalty, and offered rationale explaining why he does not believe it conflicts with his Christian beliefs.

“I support death penalty because it upholds justice for murder,” Ashford said. “It does not go against my Christian beliefs because of Romans 13:4, which states that the government must execute judgement by the sword. The ‘sword’ isn’t just symbolic for justice, but also for death through justice.”

The belief that the death penalty may eventually die out in Alabama is at the very least one that will not be decided by voters until the future. But elsewhere, Americans will face a decision to make on their ballots this November that will shape the direction of the conversation going forward.

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