Christina Prinvil is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a first-year MPP student.
With the advancement of society and access to resources such as books, documentaries, podcasts, and movies, the public has learned more about the death penalty in recent years and subsequently has shifted its perspective on the act. According to the Gallup polls, current trends in favor of the death penalty have decreased tremendously since its peak of public approval in 1994. As it now stands, roughly 60% of the population favors life imprisonment (with no parole) over the death penalty, while 55% of the population supports the death penalty for a person convicted of murder, as opposed to 43% of those who do not. On one side of the issue, some people abhor the percentage of innocent people on death row sentenced to death, while proponents of the death penalty fear the possibility of recidivism for perpetrators of violent crimes. While the fears and concerns on both sides of the issue are valid, a look into the death penalty as a political issue is worth further review and can lead to a better understanding of the future of the death penalty in the U.S.
History of Capital Punishment
Capital Punishment does not originate in the U.S. European settlers brought the practice to the states, where it became an accepted practice after the first recorded execution of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. In 1612, the governor of Virginia made the death penalty an applicable punishment for minuscule offenses, such as battery of one’s mother or killing of one’s chickens. Since 1612, laws around capital punishment have varied from state-to-state.
In the early to mid-Nineteenth Century, the abolitionist movement gained momentum inspiring states like Pennsylvania and Michigan to become the first states to remove the death penalty from most crimes, and for Wisconsin, all crimes. While the use of capital punishment started to diminish, it remained a popular tool for most states, especially for offenses committed by slaves. By 1963, lawmakers abolished mandatory capital punishment laws and discretion in sentencing became a prominent shift in criminal justice policy. Throughout the years, noteworthy Supreme Court cases have led to the death penalty being challenged, suspended, and then reinstated again. One of the most prominent cases, a ruling in 1972, declared capital punishment as being “unconstitutional: arbitrary, capricious, and disproportionately impacting racial minorities and the poor.” Today, capital punishment is authorized in 28 states, with lethal injection as the most commonly used method.
Capital Punishment in the 21st Century
In 2020, after 17 years without a federal execution, the Trump administration carried out 17 executions, including the execution of Brandon Bernard, one of the most publicized cases in the media. The government executed Bernard by lethal injection on December 10th, 2020 in Indiana for participating in the shooting and burning of two youth ministers, Stacie and Todd Bagley in 1999. The shooter, Christopher Vialva, was executed in September. Bernard was the youngest person in the U.S. to receive a death sentence for a crime committed as an adolescent. The execution came at the relief of the Bagley family after years of feeling that justice was not served for their family.
Bernard’s case received significant attention from the media. Public attention for the case turned to social media advocacy efforts after the celebrity, Kim Kardashian, asked her followers to support her in demanding that former President Trump grant Bernard a commutation (a lesser sentence). Kim stressed that the government should commute Brandon’s sentence to life in prison (with no parole) as he was a juvenile when he committed the crime. Brandon’s case is a prime example of the conflicts that the American people face when faced with the complexities of death penalty sentences. Although many people supported Brandon receiving a commutation, since he was young at the time of the incident, others believed that he deserved to die because he participated in a planned murder of two innocent people. To further understand the evolving future of the death penalty, one only has to look at recent changes in the states with the highest execution rates: Texas and Virginia.
The Death Penalty At The State Level
Texas is widely known as the leader in state executions. As one of the many bits in favor of the death penalty, the state has the Law of Parties, which “allows offenders to be sentenced to death if present while a capital crime is being committed based on the offender being ‘criminally responsible for the conduct of another.” Since 1982, Texas has carried out 570 executions. Despite the state’s conservative views and history as the first to carry out an execution using lethal injection in 1982, Texas has shown signs of changing its ways or at least slowing down. In 2020, Texas carried out 3 executions, keeping its death sentences in the single digits for the past six years. Although the numbers signify a reduction, state officials stonewall against reform and see Texas’ policies as “the model for the nation.”
Virginia, while similar to Texas, has shown a different trajectory. Since 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, establishing itself as one of the country’s leaders in state executions, second only to Texas. In 2021, Virginia set the record again, this time as the first southern state to abolish the death penalty. On February 5, 2021, Virginia house legislatures joined together to vote on HB 2263, a house bill to abolish the death penalty in the state. The bill passed in both chambers, and Governor Ralph Northam signed it into law on March 24th, 2021.
Overall, government officials bear the burden of advocating for policy changes that reflect the views, including the experiences and fears, of their constituents. As Gallup polls have shown, support for the death penalty has widely decreased throughout the years. The future of the death penalty appears near extinction as (1)12 of the 28 states that support the death penalty have not carried out an execution in 10 years, (2) states like Virginia have abolished the practice, and (3) President Joe Biden has campaigned on abolishing the death penalty altogether. As the future for capital punishment in the U.S declines, government officials will continue to express to the public that shifts in perceptions can and will lead to shifts in capital punishment practices.