The Deep South has long been where America’s death penalty has killed the most people. Ask almost anyone about capital punishment and they are likely to bring up Alabama, Florida, or Texas. As a 2018 New York Times headline noted, “There’s a Lot of Killing in the Thou Shalt Not Kill States.”
Since 1976, southern states have executed 1,278 of the 1,567 people put to death during that period. That contrasts with 196 in the Midwest, 89 in the West, and 4 in the Northeast.
It is clear that America’s death penalty will not end until Southern states are ready and willing to do so.
That moment is coming sooner than you might think. As the national climate becomes more hospitable to abolitionist arguments, we are beginning to see significant cracks in the wall of southern support for the death penalty. That development is yet another indication that this country is now on the road to ending capital punishment.
The latest sign of this important change occurred last week when John Bell Edwards, Louisiana’s Democratic governor, announced his support for ending the death penalty in his state. Edwards offered many reasons for taking this position, most of them similar to those which have led citizens and government officials in other parts of the country to conclude that it is time to stop state killing.
First, Edwards pointed out the troubling incongruity in the pro-life/pro-death penalty position held by many of Louisiana’s political leaders.“It seems to me to be inconsistent,” Edwards noted, “to say on the one hand we’re going to be the most ‘pro-life’ state in the nation or that we can be, yet we’re going to maintain our traditional approach to the death penalty.”
Second, he recognized flaws in the death penalty system that all too often result in false convictions and death sentences for people who are actually innocent. Edwards explained that capital punishment is “very final, not because it’s perfect, but because it ends in someone’s death, and we know that there are far more exonerations off of our death row over the last 20 years, than actual executions….”
In fact, as the Death Penalty Information Center reports, “Louisiana has exonerated 11 people from death row, making it fourth in the U.S. for number of death-row exonerations. Three of those exonerations took place in the decade since the state last carried out an execution.”
Two of those exonerees were freed after DNA testing showed that they could not have committed the crimes for which they were to be put to death.
Finally, the governor called attention to the fact that the cost of executing someone far exceeds the cost of keeping them in prison for life
During most of his term, Edwards had little to say about the death penalty or responded evasively when asked about it. Typical was this comment in March 2019: “I took an oath to support the Constitution and laws of the United States and the state of Louisiana. The fact of the matter,” Edwards continued, “is that we cannot execute someone in the state of Louisiana today because the only legally prescribed manner set forth in state statute is unavailable to us.”
He went on to say that “In the time since we last had this conversation, nothing has changed – the drugs are not available and legislation has not passed to address concerns of drug companies or offer alternative forms of execution. That’s not through any fault of my own or the Department of Corrections. I’m not inclined to go back to methods that have been discarded because popular sentiment turned against them or maybe some methods that were deemed to be barbaric and so forth.”
And in 2021, Edwards refused to take a position when asked whether he would support abolition bills that had been introduced in the Louisiana state legislature. All he said was that “I’m hoping the Legislature will have a very good conversation about it. It’ll be a conversation that I haven’t heard in my going on a decade here in Baton Rouge, to see where the people of Louisiana are on that particular issue.”
So things are very different now. The governor’s newfound willingness to come out against the death penalty is not the only sign of change in the South.
In 2021, Virginia became the first state below the Mason-Dixon line to abolish capital punishment. West Virginia, the only other Southern state without the death penalty, ended it more than fifty years ago in 1965.
Public support for the death penalty is also waning in other Southern states.
Take Florida, for example. A 2016 survey of 500 Floridians found that 57% thought that life without parole was the right punishment for murder, as opposed to 43% who supported the death penalty. A similar division of opinion was found across racial groups, genders, educational levels, and religious affiliation.
In 2019, a statewide survey in Georgia found that 56% of voters in that state favored replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole, 33% wanted to retain capital punishment, and 11% were undecided.
That same year, only 25% of respondents in a North Carolina poll said they supported using the death penalty as a punishment in first-degree murders. 70% of the respondents also said that they believed that an innocent person had been executed in their state and another 57% agreed that racial bias plays an important role in death sentencing.
A 2021 poll of registered voters in Texas voters showed that support for the death penalty has fallen significantly there over the past decade. 63% of those surveyed supported the death penalty, in contrast to the 75% who did so in 2015, and the 78% who did so in 2010. The numbers keep going down.
And getting back to Louisiana, 51% of state residents surveyed last year were death penalty supporters, down from 58% in 2018. Not surprisingly, Republicans were more likely to favor the death penalty than were Democrats. But opposition to capital punishment had grown among political independents, with 42% saying that they wanted to see the state end the death penalty.
These poll results explain why it is now safe for politicians in the South to do what Governor Edwards did last week and for bipartisan groups and legislators in states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana to sponsor and support bills to end capital punishment in their states.
All over the South, political leaders and elected officials are realizing, as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said when he signed his state’s abolition bill, that “There’s no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the South, or in this nation… It is not fair. It is applied differently based on who you are. And the system has gotten it wrong… Justice and punishment are not the same thing.”