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Americans' support for capital punishment continues to decline

A recent New York Times editorial notes that Americans are increasingly speaking out against the death penalty. In the article, the editorial board makes one of the keenest observations about the why the death penalty may be headed for the dustbin.

In December, the Florida Supreme Court threw out 150 of 200 death penalty sentences because the Florida law backing them has been rendered unconstitutional. But the reason why the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that law goes to the very heart of the Times perception that Americans are done with death.

Florida’s capital punishment process was that once a defendant was found guilty of murder, then the jury could make a sentencing “recommendation," including execution. But Florida removed the actual death sentence from the jury’s conscience and handed it over to a judge. Judges imposed death, not jurors. Justice Sonia Sotomayor correctly wrote that a mere recommendation violated a person’s right to a jury trial.

Support for the death penalty has dropped to a 40-year low and more than half of Americans no longer agree with the ultimate punishment. Whether Florida lawmakers wanted to spare jurors from having to make that decision or believed fewer would, the likelihood of death sentences may have started to mirror the lack of national support.

Despite the 8-1 U.S. Supreme Court decision against Florida’s law, capital punishment isn’t expected to fade away soon. However, the public’s growing awareness of bias may help speed up its demise. For example:

  • 31 white defendants convicted of murdering African Americans were executed since 1976, while 297 African Americans convicted of killing whites were executed since 1976
  • 1,214 African Americans are on death row (They comprise 12.2 percent of the population), and 1,230 whites are on death row (despite comprising 72.4 percent of the population)

The Innocence Project has also called into question the reliability of murder convictions. Since the group began testing DNA to help people who were wrongly convicted, 347 have been proven innocent while serving time. Of them, 35 had been wrongfully convicted of murder. And, about 70 percent were found guilty because the system relied on eyewitness testimony.

The New York Times editorial board seems to have identified an important and historical change in public opinion. Hopefully, the death penalty will soon be a relic of our nation's past.

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