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Americans' Support for Death Penalty Drops, Remains Strong


When executions are carried out at the prison facility in Huntsville, Texas, death penalty opponents are usually on hand to protest.

Texas carries out more executions than any other state — 16 last year. And polls show most Texans support the punishment.

One is self-described death penalty advocate Dudley Sharp, who argues that executions ensure killers do not kill again and deter others from doing so.

“The evidence that the death penalty deters no one does not exist," he said. "The evidence that the death penalty deters some people is overwhelming.”

Sharp said most families of murder victims want proportional justice, but they find no joy in an execution.

“All of this is in the context of losing an innocent life to an unjust murder, so none of it is good,” he said.

Houston attorney Pat Monks opposes the death penalty, contending that it's carried out within a flawed judicial system.

“It assumes that the system is perfect in one instance, maybe just in one instance, and it is not,” he said.

Monks cites cases in which new evidence has led to the release of prisoners on death row. He calls capital punishment an archaic practice that the United States inherited from a country that has now abandoned it.

“It is from England, the common law system in which the king owns all of us, we are all subject to the king, and so the state," he said. "It is their case [judges and prosecutors], as opposed to our case.”

In early December, an appeals court issued a stay in the planned execution of convicted murderer Scott Panetti, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Houston attorney Kathryn Kase of the Texas Defenders Service, who represents Panetti, says the nationwide attention this case has received is encouraging.

“What we see in the stay is this emerging awareness in the United States that we don’t want to execute people with serious mental illness,” she said.

The state of Texas contends Panetti meets its standard of competence. But Kase says executing such a delusional person does not serve the purpose most people associate with the death penalty.

“We are supposed to be reserving the death penalty for the worst of the worst," she said. "The problem is that when we get into choosing who that is, we are not consistent.”

Surveys show that younger respondents tend to favor life imprisonment for murderers over the death penalty and that fewer than half of all respondents favor executing the mentally ill.

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