Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Why Do Republicans Favor Death Penalty So Much More Than Democrats?

Of all the differences between the major parties, one is particularly confounding. Why should Republicans appear to be nearly twice as bloodthirsty as Democrats?

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, overall support for the death penalty has fallen to 56 percent, down six points since 2011 and by 22 since 1996 when 78 percent were in favor.

But while the decline among Democrats has been dramatic, among Republicans it has been slight.

Only 40 percent of Democrats favor capital punishment today, compared to 71 percent in 1996. Republicans, however, are for it by 77 percent, reflecting a mere 10-point drop during the same time period. Among independents, support declined from 79 percent to 57.

At least some of the differences surely owe to race. Blacks, not many of whom register or vote Republican, oppose the death penalty more than whites do. They’re also nearly twice as likely to believe that it’s applied disproportionately against them.

The Republican preference likely rests partly on two categories of prominent supporters: white men, especially the angry ones, and Protestants. White evangelicals favor capital punishment by the widest of all demographic group margins, 71 percent in support to only 25 percent against. Catholics, reflecting to an extent the church’s teaching, are lukewarm on the death penalty, with 53 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed. Religiously unaffiliated people were nearly evenly split, 48 percent in favor and 45 opposed.

It would be interesting to correlate attitudes on the death penalty with those on immigration and welfare, two other familiar “dog whistle” issues that evoke strong prejudices, but the poll didn’t go to such extents.

Something deeply troubling in the results is that nearly two-thirds of death penalty supporters agree that there’s a risk of executing innocent people, nearly half — 49 percent — doubt that capital punishment is a deterrent, and 42 percent admit that minorities are more likely to be sentenced to death.

Those are three of the strong arguments for repealing it. The astonishing and increasing number of death row exonerations, 153 so far, lends statistical emphasis to the nightmarish likelihood that innocent people have been executed and to the fear that more will die for want of something conclusive, such as DNA samples, to save them.

Two particularly notorious Texas executions, Gary Graham in 2000 and Cameron Willingham in 2004, owed to three of the proven risk factors in wrongful convictions: eyewitness identification by a stranger in Graham’s case, and junk science and a jailhouse snitch in Willingham’s. The prosecutor who sent Willingham to his death now faces Bar charges for concealing his deal with a jailhouse informant who later recanted his testimony. Georgia’s execution of Troy Davis in 2011, entirely due to questionable and recanting eyewitnesses, ignored protests from around the world, including pleas by former President Jimmy Carter and former FBI director William Sessions. In none of those cases was there any DNA evidence.

It would be difficult to think of any prospect more horrifying than executing an innocent person — unless it’s the fact that so many people who acknowledge the risk are perfectly willing to have such “simple murder,” as Justice Harry Blackmun once put it, carried out in their name.

And nearly half of these people admit that the death penalty is not a deterrent.

Then why do it?

There are answers to that question, but no good ones.

The one logical reason is its usefulness for police and prosecutors, who use the threat of the death penalty to coerce confessions or guilty pleas from people who often turn out to be not guilty.

(Yes, it happens. According to the Innocence Project, one of every four prisoners exonerated by DNA had made a false confession or incriminating statement. In a review of 86 wrongfully convicted defendants conducted at Northwestern Law School, eight of them had confessed to crimes they didn’t commit.)

If the death penalty is otherwise useless to law enforcement, entails the risk of irreparable mistakes and costs vastly more to carry out than simply locking someone up and throwing away the key, why do politicians who know all that insist on keeping it?

It’s because they’re afraid to challenge the mob mentality in American society. The death penalty is an outlet for a cruel streak quite similar to that of the good Romans who cheered when religious dissidents and common criminals –worthless folk — were fed to the lions. It caters to the passions of people who believe, against all the evidence, that executing people sends a message to the criminal world and keeps the rest of us safe.

You don’t have to look as far back or as far away as ancient Rome for mobs howling for blood. From 1877 to 1950 there were nearly 4,000 documented American lynching victims, who often died more horribly than the victims of the Romans.

Nearly every nation in Europe has succeeded in ridding itself of such atavistic behavior.

Mobs no longer execute people in America. Instead, we look to the courts to do it.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times and author of Floridian of His Century:The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins. He lives in Western North Carolina.  Column courtesy of Context Florida.

This piece was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

Graphic: Added by the Observer: North Carolina’s execution gurney

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