Public Opinion and the Death Penalty

Retentionist countries frequently cite public opinion to claim that people are not yet ‘ready’ for abolition (Hood and Hoyle, 2015).

The argument from public support makes certain assumptions about public opinion. There are a few issues with these assumptions.

Firstly, as noted, the research reviewed in this section (particularly that of Hood and Seemungal, 2011) will demonstrate that measuring public opinion is not a straightforward task. For example, much depends on the structure and creation of the survey instrument itself, how questions are framed, what level of depth the surveys attempt to capture, whether they can measure the strength of support, and how the analysis is conducted. In addition to this, a variety of other contingent factors impact results, such as perceptions of crime, fearfulness, or the salience of recent high-profile crimes or media reporting of the issue.

On media reporting, Hood and Hoyle (2015) caution:

‘The media may also claim to convey or be the “voice” of public opinion through the way news articles about murder and other grave crimes are presented and the frequency with which they are reported and the news displayed; by stories which emphasize the relative leniency of punishments; by stories garnered by journalists to present a particular viewpoint or by leading opinion editorials (op eds); and by the selection of “letters to the editor”.’

From the media analysis conducted of four newspapers from Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, the use of these framing techniques was examined. For example, the relationship between escalating rates of violent crime, public opinion, and the death penalty was noted in Barbados.

Secondly, as expressed by Hood and Hoyle (2015), those countries which have abolished the death penalty have rarely done so following the attainment of a consensus of public opinion on the issue. In fact, in many countries the abolition of the death penalty was a distinctly counter-majoritarian move. This leads many abolitionist campaigners to call for leadership on the issue. This was one of the themes which emerged from the media analysis of newspaper coverage of the issue in Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados.

Related to the issue of leadership versus public consensus, is the problem of populist politicking. Because of the perceived public support for the death penalty, aligning with populist consensus can be politically expedient.

In both Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados, allegations that the death penalty had become a ‘political football’ were levelled in media reports and it was claimed that both government and opposition parties sought to create votes out of their stance on the issue.

As noted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2012):

‘Caribbean citizens overwhelmingly support the death penalty. Politicians therefore tend to view support for the death penalty as a vote winner.’

Desmond Allum and Gregory Delzin (2003) make the link between perceived popular support for the death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago, and the fate of persons sentenced to death. Regarding the operation of executive clemency, or mercy, which in Trinidad and Tobago is vested in the Minister for National Security who is advised by the Advisory Committee, they write:

‘No doubt this paucity of cases [which successfully receive mercy] is due to the apparent groundswell of public support for capital punishment coupled with the fact that the decision is ultimately taken by the Minister, who is an elected politician.’

The issue has therefore caused much political wrangling.

However, despite popular rhetoric otherwise, there may be less political appetite for the resumption of hangings than expected. For example, in 2011, the Constitutional (Amendment) (Capital Offences) Bill was defeated in the House of Representatives in Trinidad and Tobago, with 29 voting in favour and 11 voting against.

This could suggest that there is greater appetite for political gains from debate about the death penalty issue, than for the actual resumption of executions.

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