Public Opinion

In First Post-Ferguson Election for St. Louis County Prosecutor, Death-Penalty Opponent Unseats Long-Time Incumbent

In an election viewed as a referendum on racial justice and criminal justice reform, death-penalty opponent Wesley Bell (pictured, left) soundly defeated seven-term incumbent, Robert McCulloch (pictured, right) for the Democratic nomination for St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney. With no Republican opposition in the general election, Bell, a Ferguson, Missouri, city council member, is expected to become the county's first African-American chief prosecutor. The election was the first time McCulloch—who had a substantially larger campaign purse and was heavily favored to win—had faced the voters since the Ferguson protests and his failure to indict a white police officer for the murder of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. Bell, a former public defender and prosecutor who called for ending cash bail for nonviolent offenses, ending mass incarceration, and eliminating use of the death penalty, was endorsed by numerous activist organizations promoting criminal justice reform, including Democracy for America, The Color of Change, and The Real Justice PAC. Surprising the political establishment, Bell won easily, receiving 57% of the vote. McCullouch—the county's Prosecuting Attorney since 1991—was known as a highly aggressive prosecutor with close ties to the police and who disproportionately sought death sentences. Community activists and civil rights groups were galvanized in opposition to McCulloch after he failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson for Brown's murder, prosecuted Ferguson protesters, and advocated for the execution of death-row prisoner Marcellus Williams despite DNA evidence revealing that another man's DNA—and not Williams'—was on the murder weapon. A July 2015 study found that the county's death-penalty practices contributed significantly to stark racial and geographic disparities in the application of capital punishment in Missouri. The study found that a person convicted of homicide in St. Louis County is three times more likely to be executed than if he or she were convicted elsewhere in the state and 13 times more likely to be executed than a person convicted in neighboring St. Louis City. Courts also have repeatedly found that the county's prosecutors discriminatorily struck African Americans from jury service because of their race. St. Louis County ranks among the 2% of U.S. counties that have produced a majority of all death sentences in the U.S. since the 1970s, and it has executed more prisoners than all but eight other counties in the country during that period. Bell's campaign website says "capital punishment is expensive, ineffective at deterrence, and is also racially biased. ... [D]ecades of data and information determine that Capital Punishment is not a deterrent for violent crime. Exercising his discretion as Prosecuting Attorney, [Bell] will never seek the death sentence."

POLL: Washington State Voters Overwhelmingly Prefer Life Sentences to Death Penalty

A new poll of likely voters in Washington State shows that Washingtonians are nearly 3 times more likely to prefer some form of a life sentence to the death penalty as punishment for defendants convicted of murder. The poll, commissioned by the Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI), was conducted by Public Policy Polling and released on July 12, 2018. It found that 69% of likely voters in the state preferred some version of a life sentence as punishment for people convicted of murder, as compared to 24% who said they preferred the death penalty. In a statement describing the poll results, NPI said "not a single subsample within the survey favored the death penalty… not even Donald Trump voters. ... What this tells us is that there is broad agreement across the ideological spectrum for getting rid of the practice of putting convicted murders to death." The poll asked respondents: "Of the following list of choices, which punishment do you prefer for people convicted of murder: life in prison with NO possibility of parole, life in prison with NO possibility of parole and a requirement to work in prison and pay restitution to the victims, life in prison with a possibility of parole after at least forty years, or the death penalty?" The most preferred option was life in prison without parole, plus restitution, which 46% of all respondents supported. An additional 10% preferred life without possibility of parole, while 13% favored life in prison with parole eligibility after at least forty years. 8% said they were not sure. Every political demographic preferred some version of a life sentence over the death penalty: 82% of respondents who identified themselves as Democrats favored one of the life options, as did 63% of Independents or supporters of a minor party, and 54% of Republicans. 48% of respondents who said they voted for Donald Trump preferred one of the life-sentencing alternatives, as compared with 46% who preferred the death penalty. In 2014, Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on executions, saying that "[t]he use of the death penalty in [Washington] state is unequally applied." A bipartisan bill to abolish the death penalty passed the state senate and was approved in the House Judiciary Committee in 2017, but House Speaker Frank Chopp, a Democrat, did not bring the bill to a vote in the full House before the legislature adjourned. "Five Republicans stood with us in the Senate," said Reuven Carlyle, a Democratic senator from Seattle, "but the House leadership was still unwilling to bring it to the floor." Washington's Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who along with his Republican predecessor Rob McKenna have urged legislators to repeal the state's capital-punishment statute, said he was "not shocked by the numbers." He said the public mood about the death penalty has "been changing quickly" and "we need additional legislators to help out. ... This poll will further signal to them that not only is this the right thing to do, to abolish the death penalty law in Washington state, but is precisely what the people of Washington state want and expect their legislature to do." (Click graphic to enlarge.) Washington juries have not imposed any new death sentences in more than five years and the state last carried out an execution in 2010.

Pew Poll Finds Uptick in Death Penalty Support, Though Still Near Historic Lows

Just under 54% of Americans say they support the death penalty and 39% say they are opposed, according to the results of a Pew Research poll released June 11, 2018. The poll—administered between April 25 and May 1, one month after President Trump called for the death penalty for drug trafficking—reflects a five-point increase in support for capital punishment, up from the record-low 49% recorded in Pew's 2016 poll. The results, which are in line with the 55% support level found by the Gallup organization in its October 2017 poll, are the second-lowest level of death-penalty support recorded since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976. The Gallup findings marked a 45-year low in that poll. Support for the death penalty remained lowest, and opposition highest, among Democrats (35% in favor, 59% opposed), Blacks (36% in favor, 52% opposed), and people with postgraduate degrees (42% in favor, 56% opposed). The highest levels of support for capital punishment were reported among Republicans (77% in favor, 17% opposed), White evangelical Protestants (73% in favor, 19% opposed), and men (61% in favor, 34% opposed). Women and the youngest voters (aged 18-29) were evenly divided on the issue, with 1% more saying they supported the death penalty. The largest shift since 2016 was among those identifying themselves as political independents, with reported support increasing from 44% in 2016 to 52% this year. Pew does not report changes in party affiliation, and part of the shift with Independents may represent a change in those who self-identify as Independent, rather than changed beliefs on the part of individuals who previously called themselves Independents. Long-term trends, however, continue to show a clear decline in death-penalty support among all demographic groups. Support fell from 78% in 1996, to 64% in 2007, to 54% today. That decline has been sharpest among Democrats, whose support has dropped 36 percentage points since 1996, but support among Independents has fallen 25 percentage points during that period, and Republican support has fallen 10 percentage points. (Click image to enlarge.)

Voters in Durham, North Carolina Expand Reach of National Reform Movement, Elect Anti-Death Penalty Prosecutor

Voters in North Carolina added their voices to an expanding movement for local criminal justice reform, ousting sheriffs who closely cooperated with federal authorities seeking to detain and deport immigrants and nominating reform candidates in local district attorney races. In Durham County, considered the state's most progressive county, voters in the Democratic primary opted for a candidate who advocated more rapid reform and said she would never pursue the death penalty, replacing incumbent Roger Echols with former defense attorney, Satana Deberry (pictured). With no Republican challenger in the Fall, the nomination virtually assures that Deberry will be elected district attorney. Durham County voters also unseated incumbent Sheriff Mike Andrews, who had honored constitutionally problematic immigration detainers, in favor of former Duke University police chief Clarence Birkhead, who vowed "to not cooperate with ICE." In an historic primary election in Mecklenburg County, Democratic voters ensured for the first time ever that African Americans would be elected to the offices of sheriff and district attorney in the county. Thirty-year Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department veteran Garry McFadden said he would end incumbent sheriff Irwin Carmichael's controversial immigrant dentention policies and interim District Attorney Spencer Merriweather called his election "a beginning in the process of building trust in our criminal justice system." Neither of the candidates face opposition in the general election. During the Durham district attorney's campaign, Echols and Deberry both said they would work to reform policies that have contributed to over-incarceration, but Deberry challenged the pace at which Echols pursued reform and called for a "culture change" in the DA's office. The candidates' views on capital punishment typified their different approaches to reform. In responses to a candidate questionnaire from the Durham's People's Alliance Political Action Committee, Echols said he was "not a proponent of the death penalty" and favored its abolition, but "recognized[d] that it is allowable under the law" and should be considered "at most ... [on] rare occasions." By contrast, Deberry's questionnaire response was unequivocal: "I am morally, ethically, theologically, and in all other ways opposed to the death penalty [and] ... as District Attorney, I would not seek the death penalty in any case in Durham County." Deberry wrote that capital punishment "is irrevocably flawed and does not provide justice to victims nor society. I believe it suffers from racial and socioeconomic bias and there is no way to ensure that it is being ethically applied." She called the death penalty "a human rights violation" and said it "should be abolished." Deberry is one of a growing number of prosecutors, such as Denver's Beth McCann and Philadelphia's Larry Krasner, who have announced they will not use the death penalty. In another closely watched local election that is considered a bell-weather for the strength of reform efforts, San Diego district attorney challenger Geneviéve Jones-Wright recently committed to exercise her prosecutorial discretion to decline to seek the death penalty. "Although the death penalty is still legal in California, it is not mandatory that a District Attorney imposes it," she responded to an ACLU-sponsored California District Attorney candidate questionnaire. "The death penalty is discriminatory, costly, and ineffective as a deterrent. I am morally opposed to it," Jones-Wright said. Jones-Wright, whose campaign is supported by the progressive REAL Justice PAC and by philanthropist George Soros' California Justice & Public Safety PAC, is attempting to unseat incumbent interim DA Summer Stephan, whose campaign is backed by a PAC sponsored by the California deputy district attorney’s association. Stephan did not respond to the questionnaire.

POLL: Americans Overwhelmingly Oppose Death Penalty for Overdose Deaths

Americans of all ages, races, and political affiliations overwhelmingly oppose the Trump administration plan to pursue capital punishment for drug overdose deaths and believe it will have no effect on addressing the opioid public health crisis, according to a March 16-21, 2018 nationwide Quinnipiac University poll. By a 50-percentage-point margin (71% to 21%, with 8% saying they did not know or would not answer), Americans oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of selling drugs that contributed to a fatal overdose (click on graph to enlarge image). Three-quarters of Americans (75%-20%-5%) said that using the death penalty for drug sales leading to overdose deaths will not help stop the opioid crisis. Nearly three-fifths of Republicans (57%) both opposed the administration’s plan and thought it would not work. Opposition to the use of the death penalty for drug-overdose sales was highest among African Americans (90%), Democrats (87%), voters aged 18-34 (82%), and college-educated Whites (77%). 73% of women and 70% of men opposed the plan, as did 69% of Whites, Hispanics, and Independents. By margins of more than 3 to 1, men and women, Blacks and Whites, and Democrats and Independents also said using the death penalty would not help stop the opiod crisis. Hispanics by a margin of 2 to 1 thought it would not work. The Quinnipiac Poll also asked the 1,291 voters it surveyed several questions about the death penalty itself. In a question that asked simply “Do you support or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?,” 58% said they supported capital punishment, while 33% opposed. That contrasted with the most recent Gallup Poll, which reported 55% support for the death penalty, and the Pew Research Center poll, which reported support at 49%. When asked “Which punishment do you prefer for people convicted of murder: the death penalty or life in prison with no chance of parole?,” 51% of Quinnipiac Poll respondents said they preferred life without parole, versus 37% who preferred capital punishment. A Quinnipiac news release said this was the first time since the poll began asking this question in 2004 that a majority of Americans said they preferred the life-sentencing option. At the same time, however, poll respondents said by a 2 to 1 margin that they would not like to see the death penalty abolished nationwide. Democrats split on that question at 47%-46% in favor of abolition, but substantial majorities of every other demographic opposed abolition. “It’s a mixed message on a question that has moral and religious implications,” said Tim Malloy, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “Voters are perhaps saying, ‘Keep the death penalty, but just don’t use it.” 

New Polls in Two Florida Counties that Heavily Use the Death Penalty Find Voters Prefer Life Sentences Instead

Recently released poll results from two Florida counties that have heavily used the death penalty suggest that voters actually prefer life-sentencing options instead. Polls conducted by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling on January 22-23, 2018, indicate that three-quarters of Miami-Dade County respondents preferred some form of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty as the punishment for people convicted of murder, and two-thirds of Pinellas County respondents preferred one of the life-sentencing options. The margin was more than 3 to 1 in Miami-Dade (75% to 21%) and more than 2 to 1 in Pinellas (68% to 30%). Of Miami-Dade respondents who chose a life-sentencing option, a plurality (40%) preferred life without parole, plus restitution; 18% preferred life with the possibility of parole after 40 years; and 17% preferred life without possibility of parole. In Pinellas, 48% preferred life without parole plus restitution; 12% preferred life without parole; and 8% chose life with parole eligibility after 40 years. Sixty-eight percent of Miami-Dade respondents said they would support a decision by their local prosecutor to reduce or eliminate the use of the death penalty, compared to 25% who opposed. In Pinellas, 64% said they would support reducing or eliminating the use of the death penalty, as opposed to 32% against. Pinellas/Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe reportedly has filed notice that he will seek the death penalty in 15 pending cases and six re-sentences, with nine death-penalty trials already scheduled for 2018. Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty released the Pinellas County poll on February 27 and the Miami-Dade poll on March 1. The organization's director, Mark Elliott, said “[t]he survey results make clear that the state attorney’s office is ignoring the will of the overwhelming majority of Pinellas County constituents who prefer life sentences for those convicted of murder." Elliott also said that "[e]xpensive death penalty trials do nothing to prevent violent crime, protect law enforcement, or help victims’ families in meaningful ways, and mistakes are also all-too-common.” DPIC reported in 2013 that both Miami-Dade and Pinellas were among the 2% of counties that accounted for more than half of all death-row prisoners and executions in the United States. Both were among the Fair Punishment Project's list of 16 outlier counties that imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015—more than 99.5% of all counties in the country.

As Support for Death Penalty Falls in Utah, New Study Again Says Life Without Parole Costs Less

An analysis by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice of the cost of capital punishment has found that cases in which prosecutors seek the death penalty are more costly than cases in which life without parole was the maximum sentence. The Commission's Death Penalty Working Group reviewed recent studies of death-penalty costs in Utah and across the country and found that, while there was disagreement about the magnitude of the cost difference, there was consensus that the death penalty was more expensive than non-capital alternatives. The two Utah studies included in the report were a 2012 analysis that estimated the death penalty added $1.6 million over the life of each case, compared to life without parole, and a 2017 study of the last 20 years that found that Utah spent about $40 million on 165 death-eligible cases, which resulted in just two death sentences. The report also reviewed recent public opinion data on the death penalty from polls administered both nationally and in Utah. Noting what it called "somewhat discrepant" results from recent Utah polls depending upon the questions respondents were asked, the report concluded "based on national data ... and consistently lower support from younger respondents in the Utah polls" that "public support for the death penalty in Utah is declining over previous highs." The working group also examined Utah's aggravating circumstances, which make cases eligible for the death penalty, and the impact of the death penalty on victims' familiy members (whom it called "covictims"), but did not draw any conclusions on either. The report did note that victims in non-capital cases have a greater opportunity to be heard because their non-testimonial statements to the court are not limited by the rules of evidence that apply to testimony in capital cases. It quoted the academic literature on the impact of capital prosecutions, saying that the assumption that the death penalty provides closure is "unproven ... The process of dealing with murder and capital punishment is different for every covictim" and there is no guarantee that the death penalty will enhance recovery. While the commission did not make any policy recommendations based on its findings, Utah Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty said the report points to the need for a reconsideration of Utah's death penalty. "This report should give pause to anyone who thought that because capital punishment is so rarely used in Utah that the cost of maintaining a death penalty would be negligible," said Kevin Greene, the group's director. "We have been spending tons of money without much in return and we hope lawmakers will closely examine the report and agree that the death penalty is anything but fiscally conservative."

Pledging No Death Penalty, Larry Krasner Sworn In As Philadelphia's District Attorney

Saying “[a] movement was sworn in today,” long-time civil-rights lawyer Larry Krasner (pictured)—who pledged to end Philadelphia's use of the death penalty—took the oath of office on January 2 as district attorney in a county that only five years ago had the third largest death row of any county in the country. Krasner's inaugural address put a face on the “[t]ransformational change in criminal justice" he had called for during the election, saying it was time to begin “trading jails—and death row—for schools,” “jail cells occupied by people suffering from addiction for treatment and harm reduction,” and “division between police and the communities they serve for unity and reconciliation.” Krasner's election has drawn national attention, as social-justice activists focus on new strategies to bring about social change. The Los Angeles Times placed Krasner among "a growing list of district attorneys around the country ... who have declared that their role isn’t simply to prosecute, but to protect defendants from the excesses of the criminal justice system." The American Prospect described "[t]he relatively quick swing from a death penalty devotee to a crusading reformer at the helm of a major American city’s DA office [as] both a distillation of a long-brewing shift in the politics of crime—away from the standard tough-on-crime bromides and toward a smarter approach to justice—and emblematic of a new recognition from progressives that electing allies into DA offices could be one of the most effective ways to reform the system from the inside." Since 2015, "reform" prosecutors have been elected to replace prosecutors in counties historically known for their aggressive use of the death penalty, including Harris (Houston), Texas; Duval (Jacksonville), Orange (Orlando), and Hillsborough (Tampa), Florida; Caddo Parish (Shreveport), Louisiana; and Jefferson (Birmingham), Alabama. But Clarise McCants, campaign director for the racial-justice organization, Color of Change, is eyeing upcoming district attorney races in 2018, saying “[t]he small number of [reform-minded] prosecutors we have elected so far is nothing compared to the kind of impact we could have.” Krasner takes the reins of an office most recently headed by Ronald CastilleLynne Abraham, and Seth Williams. Castille served as district attorney from 1986-1991, obtaining 45 death sentences and then participating in appeals in those cases after being elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Abraham was dubbed “America's Deadliest DA,” obtaining 108 death sentences in her 19 years as district attorney between 1991 and 2009. She was replaced by Williams, who resigned after being convicted in 2017 of corruption charges. Krasner's election culminates two decades of dramatically declining death penalty use in Philadelphia. Death sentences, which averaged 9.9 per year in the 1990s, have fallen to an average of fewer than one per year this decade. 

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