As a Matter of Fact

By now, almost every Iowan knows that two senseless deaths occurred in northern Iowa earlier this week.  Two women who worked in convenience stores, one in Algona and the other in Humboldt, were shot to death after being held up by a gunman who had the loot in hand but took their lives anyway.

Often, this type of murder has mounted cries for the death penalty.  It’s not a news story – not yet that I have noticed – but I suspect it will be in a matter of time.  Many people commenting on the story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette are calling for a death penalty.  State 29, a conservative blog site, has already come out with a post asking Culver where the death penalty is that he promised.  I don’t recall Culver promising enactment of reinstatement of capital punishment in Iowa.  He supported it, but never promoted it.  That was always Governor-elect Branstad.

One reason why the issue of the death penalty has not popped up in major newscasts or other media accounts, nor should it, is that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute a minor.  The alleged killer in these two crimes is a 17-year-old from St. Louis Park, MN.  In the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Roper v. Simmons, 543 US 551, (2005), Justice Kennedy wrote “the death penalty is disproportionate punishment for offenders under 18” and the Court “finds confirmation in the stark reality that the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty.”  Roper at 575.

Not just for juveniles, but for all murderers, reinstatement of capital punishment is no longer a viable issue in Iowa and across the country.  In the past few years, New Jersey and New Mexico repealed their respective death penalty statutes without a lot of political fallout.  In my estimation, it never was a decisive factor in determining whether a person supported or opposed a candidate for elective office.  Now, it appears as though there may be truth in that.

The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, has issued a report* that suggests voters are rethinking their attitudes about capital punishment and they expect policymakers to do so as well.

Among the report’s findings:

  • In death penalty states, most voters said it would make no difference in their vote if a representative supported death penalty repeal. Thirty-eight percent said that it would make no difference; 24% said they would be more likely to vote for such a representative. This suggests that politicians who look critically at the death penalty and support repeal might even have a slight advantage.
  • The poll confirms that the public wants straight-talk, not “tough talk” about how lawmakers propose to keep families and communities safe from crime. It suggests that the public wants legislators who will devise policies that not only hold offenders accountable for the harm that they do, but will also provide more services and support for families of murder victims.

Among the other top concerns expressed by poll respondents about the death penalty are:

  • The risk of wrongful convictions and executions of innocent people.
  • The death penalty is applied unevenly and unfairly.
  • The collateral damage the death penalty causes to families of murder victims, law enforcement professionals, and others.
  • A majority of respondents said the costs of capital punishment are an important concern, given the state of the nation’s economy. They ranked job creation, emergency services, schools and libraries, public health care services, police and crime prevention, and roads and transportation as higher budget priorities.

Legislators and criminal justice professionals should note that most individuals surveyed for the report do not believe the death penalty protects them from violent crime.  Asked to respond to the statement, “The death penalty makes me personally feel safer,” 46% of respondents from death penalty states, and 47% from non-death penalty states, disagreed.

These findings are consistent with a growing bi-partisan segment of the public, ranging in views from liberal to conservative that question the utility and effectiveness of capital punishment.  They join many who have expressed religious and moral concerns about the practice.

The message is clear: The public wants sound decisions based on the facts.  And if that’s the standard, the death penalty is truly not long for this world.

*For a detailed breakdown of the study, including the geographic regions where respondents were interviewed, responses by gender and ethnic group, and other information which you can incorporate in your communications and public education work, visit DPIC’s webpage concerning the results at  The study was conducted by Lake Research Partners of Washington, D.C.

© Copyright 2010 Fawkes-Lee & Ryan.  All rights reserved.

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