Across this country, proponents of the death penalty are playing defense. They do so because the death penalty has been tarnished by increasing concern about executing the innocent, by the pervasive racial bias throughout the system, and by the prevalence of botched executions.
The maxims governing for the death penalty today: familiarity breeds contempt. The more people know about it, the more they support the death penalty.
Last week National Public Radio (NPR) ran a story that provided strong new evidence of this fact. It reports in a series of interviews with “26 current and former employees who have collectively been involved with more than 200 executions in 17 state and federal death chambers. They are executioners, lawyers, correctional officers, prison spokespeople, wardens, corrections leaders, researchers, doctors , engineers, journalists and nurses.
NPR found that their experience was enough “to change many viewpoints on the death penalty. None of the NPR spokespeople with jobs that required them to witness executions in Virginia, Nevada, Florida, California, Ohio, South Carolina, Arizona, Nebraska, Texas, Alabama, Oregon, South Dakota, or Indiana expressed support for the death penalty later.”
This idea—that the more people know about the death penalty the less they like it—isn’t new.
Albert Camus began his famous abolitionist essay, Reflections on the Guillotine, by telling the experience of breaking his father who is a witness. His father wants to see the execution of a man who killed a farming family including his children and believes that “beheading is a mild punishment for such a monster.”
What he saw changed him. He came home after the execution “with a distorted face, refused to talk … and suddenly vomited.”
Camus is of the opinion that his father “found the reality hidden under the noble phrase with which it was masked”. Journalists and commentators use such phrases when they talk about the justice of the death penalty, or about giving murderers what they deserve, and about providing closure for the families of murder victims.
They use what Camus calls “ritual language,” declaring that the damned “have paid their debt to society.” Everyone, Camus says, “try to refer to it (execution) only through euphemisms”.
But, Camus suggested, “if people are shown their machines, made to touch wood and steel and hear the sound of heads falling, then the public imagination, suddenly awakened, will reject vocabulary and punishment.”
Camus’ argument that the more people know about the death penalty, the less they support it entered American jurisprudence in the concurring opinion of Supreme Justice Thurgood Marshall in Furman v. Georgia.
In 1972, when Furman decided, the vast majority of the American public supports the death penalty. Marshall thought that state killings were incompatible with the “evolving standards of decency” that the Supreme Court said were key to determining the constitutionality of the death penalty.. He argued that public opinion alone was not a reliable indicator of those standards.
As Marshall put it, “Although public opinion polls are obviously of some help in showing the public’s acceptance or rejection of a particular punishment, its utility cannot be very good. This is because whether or not the punishment is cruel and unusual, does not depend on whether it is only said ‘shocks the conscience and sense of justice of the people,’ but why people who know very well about the purpose of the punishment and its purpose. Liabilities will find the penalty shocking, unfair and unacceptable.
Like Camus before him, Marshall believed that if the public knew what the death penalty really was “the great mass of citizens would conclude . . . that the death penalty is immoral and therefore unconstitutional.
Since 1972, many scholars have tested Marshall’s hypothesis. The results are mixed, with some offering evidence that supports it and others claiming that it is inaccurate.
Today, public support for the death penalty is lower than it was fifty years ago. An October Gallup poll found that 55% of respondents favored the death penalty, one percentage point above 50% in 2021.
A Rasmussen survey also conducted in October found that 46% of respondents who were asked “Do you favor or oppose the death penalty?” they said they favored the death penalty. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they opposed the death penalty and 26% said they were unsure.
And support for the death penalty is down significantly from a decade ago when 63% of respondents to a previous Rasmussen survey favored it.
This decline was partly due to a reframing of the argument by abolitionist groups. Instead of focusing public attention on the kind of “ritual language” that Camus criticized, they have succeeded in calling attention to the problems in the administration of the death penalty.
And the more the American public learns about those issues, the less they like to see.
What the NPR story confirms is that those closest to the death penalty system have similar reactions.
Sixteen people NPR interviewed had witnessed or participated in the execution. Nine of them are now against the death penalty as a result of their experience with it. Five others have opposed it, and two have not expressed a view.
One of the people who participated in the execution said that “The idea of capital punishment looks good on paper….the real solution is to abolish the death penalty.”
Former Oregon Corrections Superintendent Frank Thompson explained his own change of heart on the death penalty by saying, “It does nothing more than increase the number of victims while not producing positive results. the results.”
The ten people NPR interviewed had never seen an inmate executed, but they were still close to the death penalty. Because of that involvement, four people are now fighting the death penalty.
Psychologists quoted in the NPR story said that the change in opinion among people who see the death penalty imminent is the result of a “deep sense of shame or guilt” they experience.
As of 2014 New York Times The editors rightly noted, “Capital punishment does not operate in the land of reason or logic; it operates in a state of secrecy and constant shame.”
But shame does not fall only on those responsible for carrying out the death penalty. It is a shame that all Americans, no matter how much or how little we know them, bear the brunt of the cruel punishment carried out in our name.
The more that the veil of secrecy is pulled back, the less likely anyone is to regard the death penalty as appropriate or humane. The more Americans know, the more likely we are to feel contempt for the cruel punishments that deserve death.