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Abolish Death Penalty in 4 Simple Steps

In the aftermath of Troy Davis, activists say they're closer than ever.

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For the past 15 years, anti-death-penalty advocates have taken a gradual, state-by-state approach to prove that capital punishment is cruel and unusual. The less it's used, the argument goes, the more unusual it becomes. And if it's outlawed in a simple majority of 26 states, then the case of unconstitutionality could be viably made to the Supreme Court. With 16 states having already abolished the death penalty, there are 10 to go.

Based on a legal "evolving standards of decency" doctrine, the same strategy has been effectively used in the past decade to abolish the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally disabled. "The important thing is that this didn't start out as a 10-state strategy," Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, and former program director for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told The Root. "Within the past two years, we've abolished the death penalty in Illinois, New Jersey and New Mexico. Just two years ago this was a 13-state strategy. That's part of why we're confident."

Low-hanging fruit that activists hope to add to the list soon are Maryland, Connecticut and California. Maryland placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2006, and this year lawmakers introduced a bill to fully repeal it. An anti-death-penalty bill in Connecticut was two votes shy this year, but advocates are eyeing 2012. In California, signature gathering is under way for a 2012 ballot measure to abolish capital punishment and redirect the millions spent on death-penalty cases to solving rapes and murders.

Jealous says these are all pieces of a national trend. "It was significant that the Gallup poll last October showed the lowest level of public support for the death penalty since 1972, when it was suspended," he said. "We see the death penalty falling state by state across the country, just as it's fallen country by country around the world. We're the last Western power that maintains a death row, and it's time for us to catch up with the rest of the world."

3. The American "Wild West" mentality is wearing away.

For all the movement's discussion of a changing tide in public opinion, a majority of Americans still favor the death penalty. According to the same October 2011 Gallup poll that Jealous mentioned, 61 percent of Americans approve of using capital punishment for persons convicted of murder. As Texas Gov. Rick Perry put it at a Republican presidential debate in September, after receiving wild applause for his execution record, "I think Americans understand justice."

Moye, on the other hand, sees nuances when you look more closely. "I don't actually think that retributive justice is strongly rooted in U.S. culture as much as the concept of fairness is," she said. "When you start to talk to people in this country about alternatives to the death penalty that include ways that the offender can be held accountable, or provide for restitution to the murder victim's families -- and we can ensure that they're not going to be a future threat to society if they are truly not somebody who can be rehabilitated -- then you start to see that more people support those alternatives. They're not bloodthirsty."

The Gallup poll also found that 41 percent of Americans believe the death penalty is applied unfairly, and attitudes on the practice vary significantly between people of color and whites. While 68 percent of white adults polled favored the death penalty, support plummeted to just 41 percent among nonwhites.

"In our community, we face so many issues that people want to know that they can win before they really invest themselves," said Jealous, on where he thinks many African Americans stand on the subject. "What we saw with Troy Davis and the tidal wave of public opinion against that execution, and against the death penalty itself, not only gave us hope that we can win, but that there's no choice but to win. This is just a vestige of a dying social order that has to be stamped out."

4. The movement is bigger, now more than ever.