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What explains the difference between the United States and the many other countries that have abolished capital punishment? Because the United States and many other nations that have abolished the death penalty are democracies, there seems to be an obvious answer: abolition or retention reflects the preferences of the electorate. According to this view, the U.S. electorate is simply more punitive, and the question becomes explaining the difference in national attitudes. There is some truth to this explanation. As I have argued elsewhere, the U.S. public generally does favor punitive criminal justice policies. But that cannot be the whole story. Other nations have abolished capital punishment despite widespread public support—in many cases, support of more than 70 percent of the public at the time of abolition. In the United States, however, after the Supreme Court imposed a de facto moratorium on capital punishment in the early 1970s, strong public support led to its reintroduction in two-thirds of the states.

This paper explores the relationship between public opinion and the abolition or retention of the death penalty, comparing the U.S. experience to that of other nations (with a particular focus on Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada). Although the experience of each country includes distinctive elements, several common themes emerge. In each country, political elites led the abolition movement. The structure of the electoral process and the parliamentary party system, moreover, allowed legislators and other public officials a degree of insulation from popular opinion. The elites differed from their electorates in education, experience, and knowledge of the issue. Because of these differences, support for capital punishment was much lower among these elites than among the general public. In abolishing capital punishment, the elites acted in accordance with their own views, rather than those of the median voter or the general public. Some scholars have characterized this type of political behavior as the “elite leadership hypothesis.” Additionally, international agreements and norms played a significant role in Europe, making abolition difficult to reverse once enacted and helping to persuade other nations to abolish capital punishment despite the existence of popular support. Finally, abolition (whether de jure or de facto) has had a tendency over time to reduce public support for capital punishment, thus diminishing popular pressure to reverse course.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Capital punishment, Criminal law, Public opinion