Poll: Death penalty losing clout

Lawmakers who want to repeal the death penalty may be able to do so without being punished at the ballot box.

A national poll indicates capital punishment is losing its political clout among voters.

About two-thirds of voters said a lawmaker's vote to repeal the death penalty would not affect their support at the polls, according to a survey recently released by the Death Penalty Information Center.

"Conventional wisdom held that the death penalty is a third-rail issue that should be avoided by politicians," said Rick Johnson, who designed the poll for Lake Research Partners in Washington, D.C. "And we highlighted that it really doesn't have much of an affect on the vote."

In the survey, 38 percent said a vote to repeal the death penalty would not affect their support of a legislator in an election. Another 24 percent said repealing the death penalty would make them more likely to support a lawmaker.

"We saw it played out in the most recent election," Johnson said. "There was a number of races for governor where there was a very clear difference in the candidates. Either you had a candidate who very clearly opposed or had raised serious concerns about the death penalty."

Sam Brownback of Kansas was among those cited by Johnson. Brownback, who easily won election last month, has said he supports the death penalty only in extraordinary circumstances and has voiced support for repealing it.

Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994, but has not executed anyone.

Although the death penalty wasn't an issue in the Kansas governor's race, it was in Illinois. Pat Quinn won re-election as governor while supporting the continuation of a 10-year moratorium on using the state's death penalty law. His opponent was pro-death penalty.

Declining support

The results don't surprise Michael Birzer, associate professor of criminal justice and director of the School of Community Affairs at Wichita State University.

"This shows there's not nearly the political clout for the death penalty there was 10 or 20 years ago," he said.

Birzer said social scientists have seen changing perceptions in the death penalty as people become more educated about its costs and problems. He cited cases such as John Thompson of Louisiana, who was set free just a month before his execution after new evidence proved he was not guilty of a 1984 murder.

"I think when people begin to hear about those horror stories, and that folks have spent literally decades on death row and then have been cleared," Birzer said. "I think people tend to question the fundamental purpose of the death penalty."

The Death Penalty Information Center lists itself as a nonprofit research center for capital punishment. Most of its board members represent the defense side of death penalty law.

As a criminologist, Birzer said he could find little to criticize about the survey's validity and questions.

The survey, conducted in May, polled 1,500 registered voters nationwide and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Concern for costs

The cost of the death penalty appears to be raising concerns among voters as state budgets tighten, the poll showed.

Voters ranked capital punishment last among a list of budgetary items — behind emergency services, creating jobs, police and crime prevention, schools and libraries, public health care services, and roads and transportation.

"Given the budget situations in the states, these now are real debates," said Celinda Lake, whose company conducted the survey. "It's no longer a theoretical debate."

In many states, including Kansas, seeking the death penalty costs more than murder cases that result in life in prison.

Seeking capital punishment in Kansas costs $500,000 more per case than in non-capital cases.

In February, the Kansas Senate tied 20-20 on a vote to repeal the death penalty, letting the current law stand.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, sponsored the bill, which would have provided for life without parole for crimes which now pose death. McGinn also favored spending the money saved by repealing the death penalty on other crime prevention measures.

"It seems to me the public favors ways to try and prevent these heinous murders, rather than punishing them," McGinn said.

McGinn said she didn't know whether she would try again to repeal the death penalty during next year's legislative session.

But she said the shifting public support for alternative punishments may signal a greater public awareness of its costs and effectiveness.

"We've got 10 people on death row but we haven't had an execution since 1965," McGinn said. "But the cost for seeking the death penalty is still the same."

Waning support

Survey respondents were split, however, on whether they considered the death penalty "wasteful" spending by government.

A third of voters polled still favor the death penalty.

But 39 percent said they would rather see life in prison without parole, where the inmate was required to work while incarcerated to provide restitution for victims' families.

"When we see an alternative offered, you immediately see support drop," Lake said.

A majority, however, believe costs could be cut and the death penalty be more efficient if more people were executed and the appeals process was limited.

A majority also said they viewed the death penalty as carrying too much risk of executing innocent people and that its existence didn't make them feel safer.

"It seems to be shifting away from the idea of execute 'em quickly," WSU's Birzer said. "You can clearly see the economic undertones of this survey; obviously there are other priorities that people think is important."