This year, a Pew Research Center poll found that support for the death penalty is at its lowest rate in 40 years. Down by more than 20 % from just 2 decades ago, that means a lot of people are changing their minds on capital punishment.
It's not just average Americans who are switching their stances. Governors, Supreme Court justices and even state executioners - people who are arguably the most influential when it comes to the death penalty - are also having changes of heart. Here are 4 of the most high-profile examples:
1. Former Texas Governor Mark White
As the governor of Texas for 4 years in the 1980s, White oversaw 19 executions. He even made his willingness to execute people a talking point in his reelection campaign, knowing that was popular with constituents.
Because of his experience and position, White was asked to join the Constitution Project, a bipartisan think tank, to represent the pro-death penalty side of this contentious issue. As he conducted research to bolster his own opinion, however, he realized how biased the process is and how many innocent people have been put to death for crimes they most likely did not commit. While he still doesn't think that sentencing the most atrocious criminals to death is immoral, he no longer supports the death penalty as it stands. "Human life is too precious, and human error too prevalent, to continue to gamble with a system that we know is so flawed," said White.
2. Virginia Executioner Jerry Givens
For 17 years, Givens served as Virginia's chief executioner, during which time he carried out 62 executions - most by electric chair, others by lethal injection. Givens would read up on each of the inmates' crimes so he could justify having to kill them. Then, just days before he was scheduled to execute Earl Washington, a mentally disabled man convicted of rape and murder, the state found DNA evidence that exonerated the man. Realizing that he was close to killing an innocent man, Givens' confidence in the death penalty was shaken.
Those doubts continued when Givens was convicted of money laundering in 1999. Though Givens maintains his innocence to this day, he served 4 years in prison and says he learned a valuable lesson about how imperfect the justice system can be. He now regularly speaks out against capital punishment, arguing to legislators that it's easy for them to decide to allow the death penalty when they aren't the ones tasked with actually taking the lives.
3. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper
When Hickenlooper first ran for governor, he probably didn't realize how much of an important issue capital punishment would become. In 2010, the Democrat stated his support for the death penalty, an easy stance to take since the state hadn't executed anyone in over a decade. He later supported this opinion with a threat to veto potential legislation that would repeal capital punishment in Colorado.
Things got serious when Nathan Dunlap, a man convicted of murdering 4 people, had his execution approaching during Hickenlooper's re-election campaign. At that point, the governor declared that he changed his mind and no longer supported the death penalty. In order to prevent Dunlap's execution, he indefinitely stayed it. Many pundits have called out Hickenlooper for his "wimpy" flip flopping, but if he really did switch his opinion on the matter to gain political traction with voters, then at least he's listening to the will of his constituents on this particular matter.
4. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Early in her career, Justice Ginsburg did not take a firm stance on the death penalty, indicating that she supported it in some cases. Over the years, however, her position has clearly evolved. She thinks that most people who get the death penalty, regardless of their guilt, are those with the worst representation at trial. "I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial," she said.
Recently, Ginsburg has indicated that she thinks capital punishment could very well be considered unconstitutional. However, at this point, she is unwilling to take a hard no on all death penalty cases like a handful of previous justices so that she can participate in the deliberations and have a say in death penalty cases that make it to the Supreme Court.
Source: care2.com, September 23, 2015
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