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Public Opinion and Innocence

Social science research on the death penalty has impacted the way in which the American public now discusses and debates policies on capital punishment (Radelet & Borg, 2000). Academics and researchers are now specifi cally examining how the innocence argument is related to public opinion and support for the death penalty. In an effort to gain a better understanding of these beliefs, Unnever and Cullen (2005) empirically evaluated the relationship between the two constructs. Using data col- lected by the Gallup Organization in 2003 ( n = 899), the researchers fi rst explored general support for the death penalty and found that 54% of respondents favored the death penalty over life imprison- ment without the possibility of parole for those convicted of murder. They also evaluated respondents’ beliefs that innocent people have been executed and whether the death penalty is applied unfairly. The fi ndings indicate that 74% of respondents thought an innocent person had been executed in the past fi ve years and 36% of respondents believed the death penalty is applied unfairly. Respondents who believed that innocent people have been executed were signifi cantly less likely to support capital punishment. Similarly, respondents who believed that the death penalty is applied unfairly were also signifi cantly less likely to support the sanction.

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Unnever and Cullen further examined the relationship between race of respondent and views toward capital punishment, innocence, and fairness. Similar to previous research, they found that Afri- can Americans were signifi cantly less likely to support capital punishment than whites. To examine this relationship in terms of innocence and fairness, the results of their research showed that 29% of the difference in support for capital punishment between African Americans and whites could be attributed to differences in beliefs about innocence and fairness. They also found that beliefs about innocent people being put to death had more of an impact on African American support (or lack of support) for the death penalty than whites. The authors suggest that among African Americans, news of death row exonerations may be “experienced as vicarious victimizations” and that “it is easier to imagine that they, someone they know, or a member of their racial group would fi nd themselves wrongly accused and convicted of a capital crime” (p. 30).

Using data from the General Social Survey, Young (2004) also found a connection between race, innocence, and support for the death penalty. The researcher examined the relationship between racially prejudiced beliefs and views toward convicting innocent defendants as well as overall death penalty support. The analysis of the data found that those who held racially prejudiced beliefs toward African Americans were more likely to prefer convicting innocent defendants over acquitting guilty defendants. Young also found that those who prefer convicting the innocent over acquitting the guilty were more likely to support the death penalty. This was similarly found in Young’s (2000) study sug- gesting that those who believed convicting the innocent was not as serious of a judicial mistake as letting the guilty go free were more likely to support the death penalty.

Lambert, Camp, Clarke, and Jiang (2011) reexamined and conducted additional analyses from a study testing the Marshall hypotheses suggesting that additional information about the death penalty would lead to a reduction in support for its use (see also Lambert & Clark, 2001). Using a sample of undergraduate university students ( n = 730) at one public university in Michigan, the research- ers surveyed students about their views toward the death penalty and their knowledge about capital punishment and collected general demographic characteristics of participants. During the second part of their survey they randomly assigned short essays (one on deterrence, one on innocence, and one control essay). Following the essay, students were asked about any changes in their views about deter- rence, innocence, and overall support for capital punishment. Of particular interest to this discussion is whether information about the possibility and frequency of innocent people being put to death was found to change one’s views toward the death penalty. The researchers found that 38% of those who read the innocence essay reported a reduction in support for capital punishment. In fact, students who read the essay on innocence were 483% more likely to report a reduction in death penalty support



32 Wrongful Capital Convictions


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