I was a young police reporter in Gary, Indiana, in the early 1980s. I covered serial killer Alton Coleman, murders, violent crimes and drug busts in a city marked “murder capital per capita” during those years.
I had seen the worst of people.
Yet when I covered a death penalty case of a young man accused of killing a beloved area restaurant owner, execution wasn’t a slam dunk for me.
Seated directly behind the defendant, I could see little pimples on his skin, sweat on his neck, muscles moving under his shirt as he squirmed in his chair, and other things that made him seem, well, human.
Should we, as a nation, kill people?
The country appears to be wavering. Americans’ support for the death penalty is the lowest it has been in five decades, according to a nationwide survey, part of “The Death Penalty in 2023: Year End Report” released by the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that serves the media and public with information and data.
In the report’s Gallup Crime Survey, it found that slightly more than half of Americans (53%) favor the death penalty, the lowest number since March 1972. Public support peaked in 1994 — a particularly bloodthirsty year — with 80% of Americans in favor. It has steadily declined since then.
Maybe it’s because violent crime is on a slight decrease nationwide and even the murder/homicide rate is falling. We can’t say that in Kansas City. We have passed the homicide tally this year from last.
Perhaps it’s because Americans believe the death penalty isn’t a deterrent. Or just maybe it’s because the perception is an unfair application.
For the first time since it began in 2000, the survey reports that more Americans believe the death penalty is applied unfairly (50%) than fairly (47%).
According to the survey: “Between 2000 and 2015, 51%-61% of Americans said they thought capital punishment was applied fairly in the U.S., but this number has been dropping since 2016. This year’s number of 47% represents a historic low in the history of Gallup’s polling.”
Death sentences from judges, not juries
Only five states executed people this year, Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. The majority of states (29 of them) have now either abolished the death penalty or paused executions by executive action, according to the Center.
While there is no 2023 public opinion data specifically from Missouri, Tiana Herring, data storyteller for the Death Penalty Information Center, believes looking at juries can show a trend. (A survey asking for your opinion accompanies this column.)
“No jury in Missouri has handed down a death sentence since 2013. All death sentences handed down since then have been from judges and in breaking a deadlocked jury. That’s indicative of a larger shift away from the use of the death penalty and maybe points to the idea that juries are becoming aware of potential issues with imposing death sentences.”
In a 2004 poll by the Center for Social Sciences and Public Policy Research at Southwest Missouri State University, only 40% of Missourians surveyed support the death penalty when offered an option of life with no parole plus restitution.
A report on historic racial violence in Missouri accompanied the national year-end report.
“Missouri has been a consistent outlier in the use of the death penalty. Missouri is continuing to defy that national trend,” Herring said. “That helps to explain why we decided to look at Missouri.”
The report, “Compromised Justice: How A Legacy of Racial Violence Informs Missouri’s Death Penalty,” looks at three areas of Missouri’s use of executions:
Historically, Missouri’s death penalty was applied discriminatorily based on race.
Missouri has a substantial history of racial violence directed at black Missourians
Modern death sentencing trends reveal a continued emphasis on race in capital punishment, and prosecutorial decision-making is a cause of racial disparities.
‘Legacies of discrimination and violence’
“The past isn’t as far in the past as we think it is. Legacies of discrimination and violence are built into the foundation of the systems we have today,” Herring said.
She explained a disparity called the “race and victim effect.”
“There is an overrepresentation of white victim cases among death sentences. When you look at Missouri homicide victim statistics, roughly 36% of homicide victims have been white. But 80% of death sentences involved white victims.”
Herring said a study in St. Louis County found that having a white victim acts as an aggravating factor that was comparable to someone having a prior conviction of first-degree murder or felonious assault.
“Essentially this points to a preferential valuing of white victims that is very reminiscent of what we see in looking at early lynching statistics or early execution stories,” Herring said.
Cases like executed Leonard Taylor change minds
If surveys show support slowing, and trends show juries aren’t handing down death sentences, is it it time to end this practice?
I asked Herring, in sifting through all her data, why people seem to be softening on the death penalty.
“I think it has to do with the stories that people are seeing about the death penalty. I think people are seeing coverage of cases where the death penalty is called into question when people have innocence claims. Cases like Leonard Taylor,” who was executed in February but maintained his innocence, she said.
“It’s the human element.”
The human element indeed. Perhaps that’s why, decades later, I still remember the young man sitting in front of me awaiting his fate.
If we must have the death penalty, we have to deal with the “race and victim effect.” Treating cases equally is what a democracy must stand for.