The United States remains an outlier among democracies in its use of capital punishment. The practice remains legal for federal crimes and in more than half of U.S. states, and 55 percent of Americans still support it for convicted murders, according to Gallup. But support for the practice has declined dramatically since the mid 1990s, when 80 percent of Americans favored it. Joe Biden is the first sitting U.S. president to be an open opponent and pledge to work for abolition. On Wednesday, Governor Ralph Northam made Virginia the 23rd state to abolish the practice. What’s driving this trend?

Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says there’s growing understanding of capital punishment’s cruelty, cost, and racial bias, along with the knowledge that an alarming number of innocent people have been executed. Dunham’s group doesn’t take a position on this issue in the abstract, but he says “there are a lot of ways the facts take a side” when it comes to how the punishment has unfolded in practice.


Graham Vyse: What explains the decline in support for the death penalty in America?

Robert Dunham: In the 1980s, support was rising. We had some of the highest homicide rates in U.S. history. There was a lot of racial pandering about a new generation of "crack babies" and “super predators,” all of which was false, all of which we know now as racist dog whistles. At the time, it felt very real, and it was real to the point that death sentences began to rise. Executions began to rise. By the mid 1990s, we had three consecutive years of more than 300 new death sentences imposed.

For our subscribers

The Signal is an independent digital magazine, supported exclusively by readers. Join to continue reading this article and for full access to everything we publish.

Subscribe now Already have an account? Sign in