The Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of executing someone who claimed actual innocence in Herrera v. Collins (506 U.S. 390 (1993)). Although the Court left open the possibility that the Constitution bars the execution of someone who conclusively demonstrates that he or she is actually innocent, the Court noted that such cases would be very rare. The Court held that, in the absence of other constitutional violations, new evidence of innocence is no reason for federal courts to order a new trial. The Court also held that an innocent inmate could seek to prevent his execution through the clemency process, which, historically, has been “the ‘fail safe’ in our justice system.” Herrera was not granted clemency, and was executed in 1993..
Since Herrera, concern regarding the possibility of executing the innocent has grown. Currently, more than 80 death row inmates have been released because of innocence since 1973. In November, 1998 Northwestern University held the first-ever National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, in Chicago, Illinois. The Conference, which drew nationwide attention, brought together 30 of these wrongfully convicted inmates who were exonerated and released from death row. Many of these cases were discovered not as the result of the justice system, but instead as the result of new scientific techniques, investigations by journalism students, and the work of volunteer attorneys. These resources are not available to the typical death row inmate.
Support for the death penalty has fluctuated throughout the century. According to Gallup surveys, in 1936 61% of Americans favored the death penalty for persons convicted of murder. Support reached an all-time low of 42% in 1966. Throughout the 70s and 80s, the percentage of Americans in favor of the death penalty increased steadily, culminating in an 80% approval rating in 1994. Since 1994, support for the death penalty has again declined. Today, 66% of Americans support the death penalty in theory. However, public support for the death penalty drops to around 50 % when voters are offered the alternative of life without parole. (See also, DPIC’s report, Sentencing for Life: American’s Embrace Alternatives to the Death Penatly)
In the 1970s, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), representing more then 10 million conservative Christians and 47 denominations, and the Moral Majority, were among the Christian groups supporting the death penalty. NAE’s successor, the Christian Coalition, also supports the death penalty. Today, Fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches as well as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) support the death penalty, typically on biblical grounds, specifically citing the Old Testament. (Bedau, 1997).
Although traditionally also a supporter of capital punishment, the Roman Catholic Church now oppose the death penalty. In addition, most Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and the United Church of Christ, oppose the death penalty. During the 1960s, religious activists worked to abolish the death penalty, and continue to do so today.
In recent years, and in the wake of a recent appeal by Pope John Paul II to end the death penalty, religious organizations around the nation have issued statements opposing the death penalty. Complete texts of many of these statements can be found at www.envisioning.org.
Women have, historically, not been subject to the death penalty at the same rates as men. From the first woman executed in the U.S., Jane Champion, who was hanged in James City, Virginia in 1632, to the 1998 executions of Karla Faye Tucker in Texas and Judi Buenoano in Florida, women have constituted only 3% of U.S. executions. In fact, only four women have been executed in the post-Gregg era. In addition to Karla Faye Tucker and Judi Buenoano, Velma Barfield was executed in North Carolina in 1984 and Betty Lou Beets was executed in Texas in February, 2000. (O’Shea, 1999, with updates by DPIC)