Across this country, proponents of capital punishment are playing defense. They are doing so because the death penalty has been tarnished by mounting concerns about executing the innocent, by pervasive racial bias throughout the system, and by the prevalence of botched executions.
The governing maxim for today’s death penalty is: familiarity breeds contempt. The more that people know about it, the less they support capital punishment.
Last week National Public Radio (NPR) did a story that offered powerful new evidence of this fact. It reported on a series of interviews with “26 current and former workers who were collectively involved with more than 200 executions across 17 states and the federal death chamber. They were executioners, lawyers, correctional officers, prison spokespeople, wardens, corrections leaders, a researcher, a doctor, an engineer, a journalist and a nurse.”
NPR found that their experience was enough “to shift many of their perspectives on capital punishment. No one who NPR spoke with whose work required them to witness executions in Virginia, Nevada, Florida, California, Ohio, South Carolina, Arizona, Nebraska, Texas, Alabama, Oregon, South Dakota, or Indiana expressed support for the death penalty afterward.”
This idea—that the more people know about the death penalty the less they like it—is not new.
Albert Camus starts his famous abolitionist essay, Reflection on the Guillotine, by recounting his father’s shattering experience as a witness. His father wanted to see the execution of a man who had murdered a family of farmers including their children and believed that “decapitation was too mild a punishment for such a monster.”
What he saw changed him. He came home after the execution “his face distorted, refused to talk…and suddenly began to vomit.”
Camus argues that his father had “discovered the reality hidden under the noble phrases with which it was masked.” Journalists and commentators use such phrases when they talk about the justice of capital punishment, or about giving murderers what they deserve, and about providing closure for the families of murder victims.
They use what Camus calls “ritual language,” saying that the condemned “has paid his debt to society.” Everyone, Camus says, “strives to refer to it (the execution) only through euphemisms.”
But, Camus suggested, “if people are shown the machine, made to touch the wood and steel and to hear the sound of a head falling, then public imagination, suddenly awakened, will repudiate both the vocabulary and the penalty.”
Camus’s argument that the more people know about capital punishment the less they support it entered American jurisprudence in Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s concurring opinion in Furman v. Georgia.
In 1972, when Furman was decided, a large majority of the American public supported the death penalty. Marshall thought that state killing could not be reconciled with the “evolving standards of decency” which the Supreme Court had said was the key to determining the constitutionality of capital punishment. He argued that public opinion in itself was not a reliable indicator of what those standards were.
As Marshall put it, “While a public opinion poll obviously is of some assistance in indicating public acceptance or rejection of a specific penalty, its utility cannot be very great. This is because whether or not a punishment is cruel and unusual depends, not on whether its mere mention ‘shocks the conscience and sense of justice of the people,’ but on whether people who were fully informed as to the purposes of the penalty and its liabilities would find the penalty shocking, unjust and unacceptable.”
Like Camus before him, Marshall believed that if the public knew what the death penalty was really like “the great mass of citizens would conclude . . . that the death penalty is immoral and therefore unconstitutional.”
Today, public support for the death penalty is much lower than it was fifty years ago. An October Gallup poll found that 55% of its respondents favored the death penalty, one percentage point above the 50-year low of 54% in 2021.
A Rasmussen survey also conducted in October found that 46% of respondents who were asked “Do you favor or oppose the death penalty?” said they favored capital punishment. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said that they opposed the death penalty and 26% said they weren’t sure.
And death penalty support was down substantially from what it was a decade ago when 63% of respondents to an earlier Rasmussen survey favored it.
This decline is due in part to a reframing of arguments by abolitionist groups. Instead of focusing the public’s attention on the kind of “ritual language” that Camus criticized, they have succeeded in calling attention to problems in the administration of the death penalty.
And the more the American public learns about those problems the less it likes what it sees.
What the NPR story confirms is that those who are closest to the death penalty system have a similar reaction.
Sixteen of the people whom NPR interviewed had witnessed or participated in an execution. Nine of them now oppose the death penalty as a result of their experience with it. Five others had always opposed it, and two expressed no view.
One of the people who had participated in an execution said that while “The idea of capital punishment looks good on paper….the right solution is to do away with the death penalty.”
Oregon’s former Corrections Superintendent Frank Thompson explained his own change of heart about capital punishment by saying, “It does no more than increase the number of victims while producing no positive outcomes.”
Ten of the people NPR interviewed had never seen an inmate put to death, but they were still closely involved with capital punishment. Because of that involvement, four of now oppose the death penalty.
A psychologist quoted in the NPR story says that changes in opinion among people who see capital punishment up close result from a “profound sense of shame or guilt” that they experience.
As a 2014 New York Times editorial rightly noted, “Capital punishment does not operate in the land of reason or logic; it operates in a perpetual state of secrecy and shame.”
But shame does not just fall on those responsible for carrying out death sentences. It is a shame that all Americans, no matter how much or how little we know, bear for the cruel punishment that is carried out in our names.
The more that the veil of secrecy is pulled back, the less likely anyone is to regard capital punishment as appropriate or humane. The more Americans know, the more likely we are to feel contempt for a cruel punishment that itself deserves to die.