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Faith, Partisan Politics, Economics Predict Support for Death Penalty

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Use of the death penalty has declined dramatically since the 1990's. A new study sought to understand what was behind that drop.

A new study from the American Society of Criminology finds counties in the United States with large “protestant fundamentalist” populations, greater support for Republican presidential candidates and unstable local economies are more likely to impose death sentences. 

The study, by researchers at Missouri State University and American University looked at a variety of factors associated with imposition of capital punishment at the county level.

John Eassey, a research professor of justice, law and criminology at American University and co-author of the paper, said past research focused on the state level. 

“In reality, the death penalty is happening at the local level,” Eassey said. “County-level prosecutors and other smaller districts are making these decisions whether to pursue a case or not.”

The authors found a strong link between religion, partisan politics, unemployment and the rate at which local prosecutors seek the death penalty.

The research used a data project from the University of Virginia School of Law. Published in 2018, the project uses an interactive map to illustrate the rapid decline of the death penalty in the United States since 1991.

The American Society of Criminology study also looked at how race shapes a county’s likelihood of imposing the death penalty. Eassey found that the size of the African American population, which prior state-level studies found was linked to the death penalty, was not directly associated with the decline in the use of the punishment.

“It’s been theorized that the size of the African American population, once it reached a certain size they would gain sort of a foothold, and they would be less vulnerable to the apparatus of the state,” Eassey said. “We found that somewhat, but it wasn’t as straightforward as that.”

Researchers studied the death penalty extensively when the Supreme Court suspended the practice in 1972 and again when it was reinstated in 1977.

Around the time it was restored, states ramped up their use of the punishment, but that tapered off in the 1990’s.

“We wanted to understand how the death penalty was shaping up in these latter years, at the level where these decisions were actually being made,” Eassey said.

According to the study, there was a late 20th century peak of 330 death sentences nationwide in 1994. That number shrank to 32 death sentences in 2016.

Robert Dunham with the Death Penalty Information Center said that’s because murder rates have fallen -- and so has support among every demographic. 

“We’ve accumulated a lot of data,” Dunham said. “And people are beginning to understand that the death penalty is imposed in a way that’s geographically arbitrary, racially discriminatory and economically discriminatory.”

And Dunham said, it’s imperfect.

“It’s now absolutely clear that the death penalty not only risks that an innocent person will be convicted and sentenced to death and will be executed,” Dunham said. “It’s clear now that that definitely has occurred.”

The study includes data from 2,572 counties, using U.S. Census Bureau information between 1990 and 2010.

Virginia lawmakers voted during the last General Assembly session to abolish the death penalty.