BLACKSBURG, Va., July 17, 1996 -- Public support for the death penalty appears to be at or near an all-time high. In 1966, slightly more Americans opposed capital punishment than supported it; but by the 1990s, polls consistently found more than 70 percent of respondents favoring the death penalty. In 1996, 83 percent of Virginia residents agree with the death penalty, according to the fifth annual Quality of Life (QOL) survey conducted by the Virginia Tech Center for Survey Research.
There is reason, however, to question this seemingly strong evidence, says Danny Axsom, Virginia Tech psychology professor. He and colleagues say that attitudes toward the death penalty "are, at best, ambivalent" His research shows that support greatly diminishes or even reverses when respondents are provided with alternatives to the death penalty.
"Even supporters of the death penalty often acknowledge its problematic nature, including weak evidence it serves as a general deterrent, strong evidence it is racist and classist, and the possibility that innocent people will be killed," says Axsom. "Moreover, support for the death penalty in the abstract may be stronger than in individual cases, such as in the Susan Smith trial in South Carolina."
Finally, Axsom points out, although death penalty attitudes are often thought to reflect revenge motives, at least in part, "our attitudes about revenge are fraught with ambivalence."
Questions regarding death penalty attitudes have been included in the QOL survey since 1993 as a part of Axsom's research.
In each year of the survey, public support for the death penalty was widespread when assessed by degree of agreement with the statement: "There should be a death penalty for convicted murderers." However, this support changed dramatically when assessed by agreement with a proposed alternative: "... a life sentence without the possibility of parole for 25 years, combined with a requirement that the prisoner work for money that would go to families of murder victims. How much would you agree with eliminating the death penalty if this were an alternative?"
"In fact, for each year, the majority of respondents actually opposed the death penalty when an alternative was offered," says Axsom. "The data suggest that most public opinion polls seriously overstate the nature of support for the death penalty. Despite the fact that the traditionally conservative state of Virginia historically has executed more people than any other state, the current data show consistent opposition to the death penalty when alternatives are made available." Other researchers have found similar results from other states, he reports.
This year, Axsom had the QOL survey ask an additional question regarding implementation of the death penalty -- whether or not respondents agreed with the so-called 21-day rule:
"This rule places a limit of 21 days after trial on the introduction of new evidence in criminal cases," he explains."It even applies to old evidence tested in new ways, for example by DNA analysis. Some other states have no limit on the introduction of such evidence, others have differing lengths, such as 30 days, but almost all other states waive the rule in capital cases, acknowledging that 'death is different,' except Virginia.
"It's a rule most people don't know about," says Axsom. "Often the initial investigation and representation is by an under-qualified or inexperienced attorney; only after more high-powered, better-funded, more experienced attorneys enter at the appellate level is evidence sometimes uncovered suggesting either innocence or less culpability, but by then it's too late. Anything uncovered more than 21 days post-trial is ineligible to be considered in subsequent appeals, regardless of its value. Legally, the evidence doesn't exist. Nothing requires Attorneys General to consider this evidence, even if it clearly shows innocence."
Axsom wanted to see if the public thinks the 21-day limit is fair in capital cases. The survey asked, 'Currently, Virginia law does not allow courts to consider any new evidience of innocence in a death penalty case if it is presented more than 21 days after the trial. Regading this law, do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewant disagree, or strongrly disagree?'
Fully 74 percent of respondents disagreed with the limit. "Obviously people think it's unfair."
"Because death penalty attitudes as reported serve as consensus cues for decision makers and social validity cues for most people, there is a compelling need to understand better the nature of these attitudes," Axsom concludes.
Axsom and Virginia Tech graduate students Karyn Carr and Trina Bogle presented their research through 1995 at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Psychological Association in March.