This week, a number of dramatic milestones in legal history are competing for our collective national attention: momentous, divisive Supreme Court decisions on both voters’ rights and gay rights; an epic midnight showdown on the Texas state senate floor; and even the strange spectacle that was the start of the George Zimmerman murder trial.
Meanwhile, the life-and-death repercussions of past legal decisions play out matter-of-factly and quietly for years to come. In 1976, after a brief suspension, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated states’ power to carry out capital punishment. Since then, 34 states and the federal government have together carried out 1,337 executions. New York and Massachusetts have since ruled it unconstitutional, but the death penalty remains legal in 32 states today.
Texas has put far more inmates to death than any other state (the next state down on the execution totals list, Virginia, has about a fifth of Texas’s total). According to the Associated Press, Texas accounts for almost 40 percent of the executions that have been carried out since 1976, and the state executes an inmate on average every three weeks.
At 6 p.m. local time on Wednesday, Texas is scheduled to execute its 500th inmate. Barring any last-minute injunctions, which are highly unlikely, Kimberly McCarthy, 52, will be executed by lethal injection. McCarthy was convicted of a particularly gnarly sounding 1997 murder-robbery of her neighbor in Lancaster, Texas. She was reportedly addicted to crack cocaine at the time, and was also linked to two other previous murder-robberies of elderly women—though she was not tried for those.
Public opinion of the death penalty has fluctuated slightly over time, but remains “stable,” according to Gallup. A poll late last year found that 63 percent of Americans favored the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. Gallup has been asking the same poll question since 1936:
Americans' support for the death penalty has varied widely over the 77 years Gallup has measured it, and now stands at 63%, which is about average for the full trend. Gallup's initial reading in 1936 found 59% in favor, but support then dipped well below 50% at points during the 1960s, only to surge above 70% in the 1980s. Support remained high through the first part of this century, but has since waned, possibly relating to several states recently imposing moratoriums on executions or abolishing their death penalty statutes altogether.
Gallup also notes that support for the death penalty has most sharply declined among young people, Democrats, and men. People who say they own a gun are much more likely to favor capital punishment, which perhaps is not surprising. But what might be surprising is that “despite the moral nature of the death penalty as a political issue, with teachings on it differing among the various faiths, Gallup finds virtually no difference in support for it on the basis of respondents' religious background.”
Of course, it all depends on how the question is presented. A separate poll in 2010 by Lake Research Partners (and often cited by the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center) found that, when the question included other options besides execution, most people did favor other alternatives. Their survey asked whether people would prefer that inmates be sentenced to life imprisonment with parole, life imprisonment without parole, life imprisonment without parole plus restitution, or the death penalty. Only 33 percent said they favored the death penalty, with the largest portion of people, 39 percent, choosing the next-harshest option, life without parole plus restitution.
Support for the death penalty remains high among Texans. A Texas Tribune-University of Texas poll of 800 Texas voters last May showed that there were “73 percent either somewhat or strongly in support and only 21 percent opposed.”
However, again, when poll participants were offered the alternative of life in prison without the possibility of parole, the figures did change: “Under those circumstances, 53 percent stick with the death penalty and 37 percent prefer life in prison.”