This month the state of Illinois abolished the death penalty. Many attribute the the demise of the death penalty in Illinois to several death row inmates who were released from death row in the late 1990's. In fact, disgraced Illinois governor George Ryan, who is himself in prison, released all death row inmates in 1999.
Ryan's actions were not long after John Wayne Gacy was executed in Illinois. Gacy killed 33 young boys and buried their bodies under his house. Gacy was defiant to the end. He said others had killed the boys and buried their bodies under his house. He left this world with these final words, "kiss my ass."
I am confident that there was not a ground swell of support for Gacy as he lay on the gurney on May 10, 1994. The more that is known about a killer or killing the more likely people support the death penalty.
I have explored this phenomenon in my forthcoming book, The Faces of Death: Desperate Appeals, Last Meals and Final Statements, an In-Depth Look at Every Execution of 2010.
Public opinion polls have, in the past, supported the proposition that the more one knows about a specific murder or murderer the more likely that person will support the death penalty. Saddam Hussein and Terry McVeigh are examples that even those who otherwise oppose the death penalty can support an execution if they are intimately familiar with the heinousness of the crime, the violent history of the killer or the vulnerability of the victim.
In 2001, when 67 percent of people said they supported the death penalty, 81 percent supported the execution of McVeigh. In 2006, when 65 percent of people said they supported the death penalty, 82 percent supported the execution of Hussein.