Current Issues and Topics

Innocence The Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of executing someone who claimed actual innocence in Herrera v. Collins (506 U.S. 390 (1993)). Although the Court left open the possibility that the Constitution bars the execution of someone who conclusively demonstrates that he or she is actually innocent, the Court noted that such cases would be very rare. The Court held that, in the absence of other constitutional violations, new evidence of innocence is no reason for federal courts to order a new trial. The Court also held that an innocent inmate could seek to prevent his execution through the clemency process, which, historically, has been "the 'fail safe' in our justice system." Herrera was not granted clemency, and he was executed in 1993. As of February 2016, 156 people have been freed from death row after their exoneration of all charges.

Public Support Support for the death penalty has fluctuated throughout the century. According to Gallup surveys, in 1936 61% of Americans favored the death penalty for persons convicted of murder. Support reached an all-time low of 42% in 1966. Throughout the 70s and 80s, the percentage of Americans in favor of the death penalty increased steadily, culminating in an 80% approval rating in 1994. Since 1994, support for the death penalty has declined. As of October 2015, 61% of Americans support the death penalty. However, research shows that public support for the death penalty drops when poll respondents are given the two choices a juror in the penalty phase of a typical capital trial would be given: death or “life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole (LWOP).” Given that choice, Americans are about evenly split between death and life without parole. An American Values Survey in October 2015 found 52% in support of LWOP and 47% supporting the death penalty.

Religion and the Death Penalty In the 1970s, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), representing more then 10 million conservative Christians and 47 denominations, and the Moral Majority, were among the Christian groups supporting the death penalty. NAE's successor, the Christian Coalition, also supports the death penalty. Today, Fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches, as well as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), support the death penalty — typically on biblical grounds, specifically citing the Old Testament (Bedau, 1997). Although formerly also a supporter of capital punishment, the Roman Catholic Church now opposes the death penalty. In addition, most Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and the United Church of Christ, oppose the death penalty.

Women and the Death Penalty Women have, historically, not been given the death penalty at the same rate as men. They commit far fewer murders than men, and often the victims are relatives or acquaintances. From the first woman executed in the U.S., Jane Champion, who was hanged in James City, Virginia in 1632, to the present, women have constituted only about 3% of U.S. executions. In the modern era of the death penalty, that percentage has shrunk to about 1% of executions. As of February 2016, only 16 women have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. (O'Shea (1999) with updates by DPIC).

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