Getty Images photo of crime scene.
Republicans nationwide went big on claims that crime was rampant in our cities and that it was crucial to elect hard-nosed conservatives to stop it. The November midterms showed that those appeals failed to win over many voters who weren’t already part of the GOP’s rural and exurban base, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center said Thursday.
The center, which compiles data relating to the death penalty in the United States, on Friday released its annual report.
It said that executions and death penalty sentences continue at or near historic lows as public support for the measure continues to decline. Meanwhile, states that did attempt executions botched several.
“Seven of the 20 execution attempts were visibly problematic — an astonishing 35% — as a result of executioner incompetence, failures to follow protocols, or defects in the protocols themselves,” the report said. “On July 28, 2022, executioners in Alabama took three hours to set an IV line before putting Joe James to death, the longest botched lethal injection execution in U.S. history. Executions were put on hold in Alabama, Tennessee, Idaho, and South Carolina when the states were unable to follow execution protocols.“
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine since 2019 has delayed executions for the state’s 134 death row inmates, citing an unwillingness by manufacturers to supply the state with the drugs needed under the state’s execution protocol.
Death penalty opponents have long made several arguments against it: Minorities are much more likely to be sentenced to death — especially if the crime’s victims are white. It’s geographically arbitrary in the sense that prosecutors in some jurisdictions are much more likely than others to seek the ultimate punishment. It’s difficult for prison workers to carry out executions humanely. And, since 1973, 190 death row inmates have been exonerated in the United States, implying disturbing levels of misconduct and incompetence on the part of law enforcement.
Those arguments seem to be gaining purchase with important parts of the electorate. Not only does opinion polling show declining support for executions, results at the ballot box indicate that urban and suburban voters were unmoved by near-ubiquitous ads claiming violent crime is rampant in big cities.
An October report by the Pew Research Center said that federal law enforcement officials haven’t found any recent increase in overall rates of violent crime, but they did find significant increases in murder rates during the pandemic — although they were still well below historic peaks in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
The same report said that voters believe that violent crime is an important issue. It said that’s especially true for Blacks, older voters and conservatives.
But even with all the TV ads about blood running in the streets, the GOP was largely unsuccessful in ousting reformist prosecutors, the Death Penalty Information Center report said.
“Despite massive special interest campaign spending, election results at the state and local levels reflected continued public support for officials committed to criminal legal system reform — including policies that could significantly reduce the use of the death penalty,” the report said.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the center, said there’s a growing disconnect between 90s-style tough-on-crime ads and public attitudes about what should be done.
“The conventional wisdom is that support for capital punishment follows public perception of violent crime and that as murders rise, capital punishment should rise,” Dunham said in an interview Thursday.
That conventional wisdom seemed to be bolstered in June, when San Francisco voters removed reformist prosecutor Chesa Boudin over concerns about rising crime there. But by Nov. 8, a similar national backlash failed to materialize.
- In Shelby County, Tenn., voters ousted District Attorney Amy Weirich, a tough-on-crime prosecutor whose county had 13% of the state’s residents, but whose office won 33% of the death sentences, the Death Penalty Information Center report said. Memphis-area voters instead chose Steve Mulroy, a university professor and former federal civil rights attorney.
- Oklahoma County has imposed more death sentences than any county with a population between 750,000 to 1 million in the past 50 years. Yet voters there elected Vicki Behenna, a former executive director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to freeing the improperly incarcerated.
- In California, proponents failed to get enough signatures to get a recall of District Attorney George Gascon on the ballot. Gascon is a progressive who won office in the wake of outrage over the 2021 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Dunham, of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the GOP crime ads were intended, in part, to peel off Black voters. But the evidence instead seems to be that in the counties with the most murders, people want to see new, more pragmatic approaches to crime.
“The ads were aimed at persuading the Black community. They only persuaded the base,” he said, explaining that there is evidence that the ads did reinforce tough-on-crime views among rural voters.
However, most death-penalty prosecutions come out of urban jurisdictions. And because voters there seem to be supporting reformist prosecutors, it’s unlikely we’ll see a spike in death penalty cases any time in the near future, Dunham said.
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