Even so, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and longtime anti-death penalty activist, is encouraged by the fact that the practice is used less frequently. Texas, which leads the nation in executions, executed 17 people in 2010, down from 40 in 2000. “It’s been all but abolished in the United States before, and it can happen again,” he told The Root, though he conceded that moving the needle of public opinion will be difficult at a time of high unemployment and “the mindset of scapegoating the other,” as people struggle for basic needs. “It’s going to be hard fought, but the momentum is moving in that direction.”
2. It may all come down to 10 states.
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.”