The Crime Report
June 8, 2022
Do you support or oppose capital punishment? That seems like a straightforward question.
However, once you begin to peel back the layers of legality, reality and morality, the answer is not as straightforward as one would expect.
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk about the death penalty with a group of true crime aficionados at CrimeCon 2022 in Las Vegas, Nev.
Through the smartphone app, Menti.com, I was able to interact with my audience in real time. The responses were surprising—and they offer a glimpse into the subtleties of the death penalty.
The first matter of business was to establish a baseline for my audience. I asked who supported the death penalty. With nearly 200 responses the audience was evenly split. Forty-one percent supported the death penalty, 41 percent opposed and 18 percent were unsure.
Then the audience was introduced to the story of John David Duty. I wrote about Duty in my book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010, published by McFarland & Company in 2014.
Duty was serving three life sentences in an Oklahoma prison. In 2001, Duty was 49, and had been in prison since 1978. He didn’t want to spend any more time in prison.
Apparently he didn’t have the courage to escape or take his own life.
He decided that he would kill his cellmate, write a letter to the district attorney, and ask to be sentenced to death—and be executed—or he would kill again.
At that point, I asked the audience if they would support the death penalty for Duty. Fifty-five percent of respondents supported Duty’s execution.
Wait a second: fourteen percent of the audience who said they opposed the death penalty, or who were “unsure,” voted to execute Duty.
The group then heard about Roger Coleman. In 1992, Coleman was executed for raping and killing his 19-year-old sister-in-law. Before he was executed the Washington Post wrote an editorial about his innocence.
Pope John Paul II intervened on his behalf. In fact, Coleman’s photograph adorned the cover of TIME , with the headline “This Man Might Be Innocent. This Man Is Due to Die.”
In 2015, thirteen years after his execution, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, ordered an unprecedented post-execution DNA testing of evidence related to Coleman’s case. The analysis confirmed that Coleman did, in fact, rape and murder his sister-in-law.
Sixty-three percent of respondents supported Coleman’s execution. More than one in three people who initially indicated they did not support the death penalty or who were “unsure” voted to execute Coleman.
Knowing about the heinousness of a crime can set aside moral apprehensions about the death penalty
When a person knows about the victim, knows about the heinousness of the crime or the viciousness of the offender, they tend to set aside their moral apprehensions and support the death penalty.
This phenomenon has played out in high-profile executions as well.
When the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was facing execution, Gallup found that 67 percent of Americans supported the death penalty, but 81 percent supported McVeigh’s execution.
In 2006, when former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein faced execution, 67 percent of respondents in a Harris Interactive online poll said they supported the death penalty, but 82 percent supported Hussein’s execution.
My real-time interaction with a group at CrimeCon was not a scientific study. But it offers an insight into the complexities of capital punishment.
Two death penalty trials in Florida within six months—and a little help from my CrimeCon audience—demonstrate the seeming arbitrariness of the death penalty.
Markieth Lloyd was convicted of killing a police officer in Orlando, Fla. Robert Hayes is a serial killer convicted of killing three sex workers in Daytona, Fla.
When I presented the aggravating and mitigating factors of each case, 67 percent of the audience voted to send Lloyd to prison for life. They voted 56-44 to put Hayes to death.
Today, about 54 percent of Americans support the death penalty. That number has been falling for about the last quarter century.
The number of death sentences and the number of executions have declined dramatically over the last ten years. Yet public opinion with regard to the death penalty is not easy to discern.
For many, support for the death penalty is not a yes-or-no answer.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George. P.C. and the former district attorney of Lawrence County, PA. He presented The Machinery of Death: Capital Punishment by the Numbers at Crime Con 2022. He is the author of The Executioner’s Toll, 2010. You can follow him on twitter @MatthewTMangino or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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