The Changing Attitude Towards the Death Penalty in the US

Pre-University Paper, 2016

31 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. General Information

3. Americans’ Attitude in the Clinton Administration
3.1 Clinton’s Attitude Towards the Death Penalty
3.2 Changes in Law
3.2.1 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act
3.2.2 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act
3.3.3 Reintroductions and Moratoriums
3.3 Incidents
3.3.1 Gary Graham
3.3.2 Ronnie Burrell
3.3.3 Brian Baldwin
3.3.4 Karla Faye Tucker
3.3.5 “Dead Man Walking”
3.3.6 Demand of the American Bar Association
3.4 Public Opinion on the Death Penalty

4. Americans’ Attitude in the Bush Administration
4.1 Bush’s Attitude Towards the Death Penalty
4.2 Changes in Law
4.3 Incidents
4.3.1 Timothy McVeigh
4.3.2 The Innocent Project and Curtis McCarty
4.3.3 The Death Row Ten
4.3.4 Lethal Injection Debate
4.4 Public Opinion on the Death Penalty

5. Americans’ Attitude in the Obama Administration
5.1 Obama’s Attitude Towards the Death Penalty
5.2 Changes in Law
5.3 Incidents
5.3.1 Glenn Ford
5.3.2 Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the Ongoing Lethal Injection Problem
5.3.3 Racial Disparity
5.3.4 “The 2% Death Penalty”
5.4 Public Opinion on the Death Penalty

6. Conclusion



The aim of this paper is to describe to what extend the public opinion about capital punishment in the United States has changed and to outline the reasons for that. Based on the hypothesis that support has generally dropped, this paper provides an overview why and when support slowly started to decrease. The examinations are limited to approximately the last twenty-five years, and the three main chapters are structured according to the time periods of the then-ruling presidents. They respectively comprise information about the president's death penalty policy, the changes in law, some incidents that have occurred, as well as the development in people's attitude. Consequently, it can be concluded that more and more Americans oppose the death penalty as the system's fallibility and inefficiency are becoming obvious. However, while moral positions have not changed significantly, the impossible flawlessness and expensive application of the death penalty triggered many shifts in opinion.

1. Introduction

While the death penalty in Europe has been abolished for a long time, apart from times of war, it is still constitutional in large parts of the United States. Due to events such as exonerations of innocents, executions of mentally disabled people or maladministration, displeasure about the injustice and effectiveness of this punishment has appeared among the population of the US in recent years. Similarly, a debate about the methods of execution arose as well. In my paper, I want to examine whether a change in the attitude towards the death penalty has actually occurred within the last twenty-five years and explain the causes and backgrounds for this. In order to accomplish this, I have used several opinion studies and articles about notable events. The Death Penalty Information Center was a great help to me, as they have been collecting all sorts of facts and references to further reports. My paper starts with the presentation of some general facts and figures about the American death penalty. Next, the three main chapters, divided into the tenures of the last three presidents, follow. Therein, I want to examine each’s president’s death penalty policy and the law changes made in their period of office. I will look at different influential incidents that occurred, just as I will analyze the public opinion at the respective time. Since there are so many examples of injustices in the death penalty system, only a few selected cases are discussed. It should be noted that a vast number of similar cases exist in literature. Eventually, I will sum up my findings and declare whether and to what extend the feelings about the death penalty differ nowadays compared to earlier times. Of course, the decisive reasons for such a change will be cited as well.

2. General Information

The United States are among the top five countries in the world with the highest rate of executions and the last western industrialized nation that holds on to capital punishment. The history of the death penalty in the US reaches back to the beginnings of the new colonies. Colonists brought the death penalty to their new country. In 1608, the first recorded execution took place. Subsequently, capital punishment never left the constitution of the United States until the mid of the twentieth century. However, some states had already abolished it. In the year 1972, the US suspended capital punishment since it was perceived as being ineffective and cruel.1 Until then, the number of executions had increased continuously. For instance, in the period from 1850 to 1899, there were about 4000 people executed, whereas from 1900 to 1972 the number was about 7500 people. In the early days, from 1650 to 1699 this number did not even reach 300. After capital punishment was reintroduced in 1976, up until now about 1500 convicts have been executed.2 31 out of all 50 American states still hold on to capital punishment, while 19 do not. Actually, only few of these who authorize it also make regular use of it. All death penalty states, the US military and the US government use lethal injection as their primary execution method, however, some states offer other methods as well. Since 1976, 158 people have been executed by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, and 3 by hanging and firing squad respectively. In some states and federal capital cases, the death penalty may also be imposed for crimes other than murder. There has not been an execution for such offenses since the reintroduction, though. In comparison to men, executions of females only make up a small percentage, as merely 16 women, but over 1400 men have been executed since 1976.3

3. Americans' Attitude in the Clinton Administration

3.1 Clinton's Attitude Towards the Death Penalty

Bill Clinton was President of the United States from 1993 to 2001 and a member of the Democratic Party. Before that, he was governor of Arkansas. At the beginning of his career he was said to be a death penalty opponent. He did not support the process of the executions and even had to be forced to set the execution dates of the inmates who were sentenced to death. Thus, he delayed the dates for an indefinite amount of time. Eventually, he introduced a method that would determine the schedule for him. Moreover, he extricated over 70 people from jail, 38 of which were convicted of murder. Afterwards, one of those people was sentenced for murder again, which lead to Clinton losing the subsequent re-election as his republican opponent called him out for not being tough enough with crime. Later he apologized for setting the convicts free and promised not to do so in the future. When his second term as governor started, he had gradually changed into a death penalty supporter. He contradicted that capital punishment is immoral and said that it is adequate for multiple murderers, who are aware of what they are doing. An incident in which a democrat came out as a death penalty opponent and thereafter lost the election changed the width of things Democrats could say about the death penalty without being accused of being soft on crime. Clinton had learnt from that and during the time he first ran for president, he said that Democrats “should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent.” He succeeded in getting rid of his image as someone who is soft on crime by pushing through some doubtful executions. For instance, Clinton flew to Arkansas only to witness the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, who had killed a police officer and shot himself in the head afterwards. He survived but his brain was enormously damaged and he did not act like a sane person anymore as he had multiple hallucinations and no idea what his upcoming execution meant for him. However, the judges found him mentally competent, and he was executed. Towards 2001, Clinton's attitude changed slightly once again as he commissioned a statistical survey on the basis of his concerns about the inequitable execution of capital punishment regarding geographic and racial aspects.4

3.2 Changes in Law

3.2.1 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act

In 1994, the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act” was signed by Bill Clinton. 60 new federal death penalty offenses were appointed, including homicide offenses, espionage and treason, as well as non-homicidal narcotics offenses. In comparison, the previous law only consisted of one capital offense.5

3.2.2 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act

A new federal law called the “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act” was introduced in 1996. Its purpose was to prevent terrorism and ensure more help and justice for victims of such. In addition, the opportunities for convicts to prove their innocence and contest their judgment were limited. So-called “Death Penalty Resource Centers” helped those who were seeking relief from unlawful imprisonment. However, the old guideline to enable that was discarded and replaced with a new one that is rather unlikely, if not almost impossible, to actually help detainees.6

3.3.3 Reintroductions and Moratoriums

Kansas reinstated its death penalty in 1994, as did New York in 1995. New York's then Governor George Pataki implemented it to fulfill a campaign promise he had made. In 2000, Governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium for the death penalty in Illinois owing to worries about wrongful convictions.7

3.3 Incidents

3.3.1 Gary Graham

In 1981, 17 year old Gary Graham, a black boy from Texas, was accused of shooting a man. Although he insisted that he was innocent and only one out of six witnesses claimed that he was the killer, he was convicted and sentenced to death. There was no other evidence, but because of other crimes he had committed and his race there was no further investigation and the police decided they had found their perpetrator. Some of the jurors that were responsible for his verdict later admitted that if they had known about the poor evidence, they would not have found him guilty. Four out of five judges voted for a deferment of the execution, yet Graham was executed by lethal injection in 2000, still insisting on his innocence.7

3.3.2 Ronnie Burrell

Ronnie Burrell was sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of an elderly couple, which he did not commit. Solely testimonies from unreliable witnesses that would personally benefit from his imprisonment served as proof. The jury was unaware of the connection between the witnesses and the defendant, the defense lawyer had no experience with such cases, and additionally Burrell was mentally disabled and could not read or write. The chief witness was even known as “Lyin’ Wayne”, who had spent multiple times in mental hospitals and had already testified against many other people in a negative way. Regardless of these facts, he had to spend 14 years in prison until his case was re-opened and he was exonerated in 2001. The same thing happened to Michael Graham, who was convicted for being his accomplice. He was exonerated only some days before Burrell.8

3.3.3 Brian Baldwin

At the age of 17, Brian Baldwin and a friend of his, both African-Americans, were on their way to Alabama accompanied by another white teenager. There, Baldwin went on alone, whilst the other two boys took a different route. When the corpse of a white girl was found, the two African-Americans were arrested and sentenced to death. Baldwin’s trial contained no witness, his defense lawyer did not really prepare Baldwin or himself for it and the jury consisted of only white people, as all black jurors were systematically been excluded beforehand. Due to Baldwin’s confession to the crime, he was found guilty and sentenced to death, as well as his friend. What the jury did not know was that his confession had been forced with beatings and electric shocks. They also did not know that his confession did not even describe the homicide accurately, as he had mentioned the wrong weapon and method. Additionally, they were unaware of the fact that the girl had been killed by a left­handed person and not Baldwin. His friend, however, was left handed. Moreover, Horsley, as his friend was called, had clothes with the victim’s blood on it, while Baldwin’s clothes were clean. In 1999, Baldwin was executed in Alabama's electric chair, even though Horsley had confessed in a letter, some years before his execution, that he alone had committed the homicide.9

3.3.4 Karla Faye Tucker

In 1983, Karla Faye Tucker was arrested and sentenced to death for a double murder she committed with a pickaxe at the age of twenty three. During the time of the murder, she was under strong influence of drugs. Besides, her childhood had been very troubled. She started taking drugs when she was nine years old and got into prostitution five years later. Throughout her time in prison, Tucker became very religious, married a priest and went through a complete change in personality. When she talked about her actions and her faith in an interview on TV, she received worldwide attention and support. In a letter, she asked George W. Bush, former governor of Texas, for a suspension of her punishment so that she could “reach out to others to make a positive difference in their lives." Bush denied her demand, and she was executed in 1998, even though the Pope and many people around the world pleaded for her mercy. Her case triggered discussions about gender equality in law, as she was one of the first women who was executed after the moratorium, and she was living proof that it is possible for criminals to change for the better. Her interview was also influential for some, as it is harder to support the death penalty if people get to know the person behind the crime.10

3.3.5 “Dead Man Walking”

Helen Prejean, a catholic nun, published her book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States in 1993. She shares one of her first experiences as a spiritual adviser for death row inmates. Meanwhile, she has accompanied a lot of them up to their execution, and her experiences shaped her to become one of the best known anti-death penalty activists. In 1996, a film was made based on her book. Both, the book and the movie got a lot attention by the media and the public, as people began to empathize with the detainee and sometimes even shared questioning the death penalty. The film was nominated for many different prizes, including for Oscars in four categories.11

3.3.6 Demand of the American Bar Association

The American Bar Association, a federation of lawyers, judges and law students in the US, demanded to stop all executions as long as there is still so much injustice within this system. They had commissioned a report that showed that mostly only inexperienced lawyers are available for capital cases, which leads to poor trials and investigations. Thus, the probability of condemning an innocent person is too high. As James S. Liebmann, a law professor of Columbia University who reported this to congress, said:

“The high level of constitutional error implanted in capital trials and appeals by uncompensated, inexpert, and ill-prepared counsel has required the federal courts to overturn and order retrials of more than 40 percent of the post-1976 death sentences that they have reviewed. Moreover, the expensive and time-consuming proceedings necessary to uncover that astonishing number of constitutional violations and to retry and review all those cases is without doubt the single largest cause of delay in capital litigation.”

In addition, they disapproved of the racial discrimination, the fact that almost only poor people end up on death row and the death sentencing of mentally disabled persons and juveniles.12

4.4 Public Opinion on the Death Penalty

During the Clinton administration, public support of the death penalty reached an all-time high with 80% of all Americans supporting it in 1994. By the end of the millennium support slowly started to decline. In 1999, about 71% said that they favoured the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. Furthermore, each year since 1976 more and more people have been sentenced to death and executed. The number of executions reached a climax in 1999, with 98 people being executed. On average, there were about 300 people sentenced to death every year in the nineties. Later in 2001, this number almost halved. In general, people felt the need for more and quicker executions, as the changes in law made in that decade indicated. Another factor that symbolized the public death penalty support was the subsequent election of President George Bush, who had presided the highest amount of executions any governor had at that time. Support for death penalty alternatives was also lower than before. One reason was the obscurity of the meaning of a life sentence. Since many members of the jury believed that the convict sooner or later would be released from prison, they rather chose a death sentence.13 Although most Americans were in favour of the death penalty at that time, they did not know much about it, and their attitudes were hardly based on knowledge. Both those who opposed capital punishment and those who supported it usually did so because of their moral positions. For some, it was just an unquestioned existing punishment they felt was right for the most evil crimes. They did not know much about the reality that it was often the one with the worst lawyer, not the worst crime, who got a death sentence. People believed capital punishment was there to protect the innocent and deter potential criminals. Therefore, crime rates and death penalty support seemed to have at least a slight connection, as support often increased as a consequence of the population’s desire to reduce violent crimes again. In general, public opinion is rather linked to the perception of certain factors, such as high crime rates, than to actual events. Nevertheless, there is no serious study that proves the deterring effect of the death penalty, as most homicides are unplanned, impulsive acts and in most cases not premeditated. That means hardly any prospective murderers weigh up the consequences of their crimes. Most likely, supporters would still favour capital punishment even after declining crime rates, because they would interpret such a trend as a sign of the effectiveness of capital punishment. Some studies showed that victims of crimes are not more likely to be supporters than others, as fear has little to do with it. Anger, however, is more influential. For instance, a politician who argues angrily for the death penalty gives off an impression of power. Not long ago, politician, especially a candidate for the presidential election, basically had to support capital punishment in order to get elected. Otherwise, he would have been said to be soft on crime, like Bill Clinton first was. In any case, supporting the death penalty is more complicated than opposing it, as there is no specific rule for the circumstances for when to pick a death sentence and when not. A survey showed that Americans are more likely to choose a different punishment other than the death penalty when they are given detailed information about a specific case. If they learned about the circumstances of the crime or got to know details about the murderer, they mostly assumed that this case was an exception to the rule, while in fact nearly every death penalty case entails those aspects. Such factors could be for instance that the killer has a family, is religious or had a difficult childhood. The study revealed that when Americans said they supported the death penalty for murderers, they usually thought of cold-hearted killers. As most cases are not like this, they tended to oppose the death penalty when learned about the individuals and had a harsher opinion when only a general category was discussed. Therefore, events such as the interview with Karla Faye Tucker, made people feel like even the worst criminals could change, which contributed to the fact that at the end of the decade, people slowly started to change their mind. Additionally, some incidents of people freed from death row because they were innocent or dubious executions that got the attention of the media, made people start to think about the risk of killing innocents. Normally, nobody finds out if an innocent person has been executed, only when they are released from prison. Because of this, it can also be misleadingly interpreted as proof that the system works. At large, the nineties were the time of the biggest death penalty support. However, with the turn of the millennium, more and more people, such as George Ryan, at the time governor of Illinois, started to change their mind because of the high risk of executing the innocent.14 15


1 Death Penalty Information Center, Part I

2 Death Penalty Information Center, History

3 Death Penalty Information Center, Facts

4 Nguyen

5 United States Department of Justice

6 Dieter, Innocence

7 Jackson, S. ix f.

8 Jackson, S. 1 f.

9 Jackson, S. 55 f.

10 o.V., Karla

11 Feister

12 Jackson, S. 46 f.

13 Dieter, Changing Views

14 Gross, Hardenings

15 Gross, Update

Excerpt out of 31 pages


The Changing Attitude Towards the Death Penalty in the US
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Death Penalty, Capital Punishment, public attitude, crime, law, so, social studies, public opinion
Quote paper
Magdalena Öttl (Author), 2016, The Changing Attitude Towards the Death Penalty in the US, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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