Thursday, November 22, 2007

Is the death penalty fading away?

I saw a National Journal article earlier this week in which Stuart Taylor, Jr. wonders if the death penalty might be slowly fading away in this country. Current polls show that 65% of the public still supports capital punishment, but that is down from 78% in the early 1990's. While nearly two-thirds of people in this society support the death penalty in the abstract, there are other signs that the practice is becoming less popular.

Taylor points out that the number of juries choosing the death penalty "has plunged, from 317 in 1996 to 128 in 2005, the latest year for which complete data are available." In like manner the number of executions "has dropped from a modern high of 98 in 1999 to 53 in 2006."

Numerous factors are cited for the weakening popularity of capital punishment in practical application:

  • DNA evidence has exonerated some 15 death-row inmates and almost 200 other persons convicted of murder or rape, mostly since the late 1990s alerting death penalty supporters to imperfections in our criminal-justice system that could lead to the execution of an innocent person.
  • Fewer defendants are getting the death penalty and the cost to taxpayers for a death penalty trial tends to be far more than life imprisonment. This reality has made prosecutors less likely to seek death.
  • More states are offering life without the possibility of parole as an alternative sentence which causes more jurors to believe that dangerous criminals don't have to be killed to be kept off the streets.
  • Current concerns about the lethal injection method of execution may continue a long-standing trend of the rejection of method after method of execution.

  • Taylor raises interesting points that lead me to wonder if the death penalty might end in this country not by being outlawed but by slowly falling from favor. While I would prefer the practice end sooner rather than later, it is encouraging to see that capital punishment is becoming less popular.

    Romans 1:16 tells us that the gospel is "the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes" (TNIV). The power of God is powerful enough to transform anyone, even murderers, but not if we give them lethal injections first. We can protect society from the most dangerous criminals short of killing them. Because life is precious and because the gospel, the power of God, can transform anyone we must put murderers in prison for life rather than executing them.

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