Executing The Innocent and Support for Capital Punishment: Implications for Public Policy

By Francis T. Cullen / James D. Unnver / Criminology and Public Policy, on 1 January 2005

The issue of whether innocent people have been executed is now at the center of the debate concerning the legitimacy of capital punishment. The purpose of this research was to use data collected by the Gallup Organization in 2003 to investigate whether Americans who believed that an innocent person had been executed were less likely to support capital punishment. We also explored whether the association varied by race, given that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the death penalty. Our results indicated that three-quarters of Americans believed that an innocent person had been executed for a crime they did not commit within the last five years and that this belief was associated with lower levels of support for capital punishment, especially among those who thought this sanction was applied unfairly. In addition, our analyses revealed that believing an innocent person had been executed had a stronger association with altering African American than white support for the death penalty.A key claim of death penalty advocates is that a high proportion of the public supports capital punishment. In this context, scholars opposing this sanction have understood the importance of showing that the public’s support for executing offenders is contingent and shallower than portrayed by typical opinion polls. The current research joins this effort by arguing that the prospect of executing innocents potentially impacts public support for the death penalty and, in the least, creates ideological space for a reconsideration of the legitimacy of capital punishment.

  • Document type Article
  • Countries list United States
  • Themes list Innocence,