Is the Death Penalty Dying?

Washington became the eighth state in 10 years to suspend the death penalty, as growing numbers of Americans are opposing the practice.

A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.  (National Journal)

The immediate consequence of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's decision to suspend the state's death penalty Tuesday fits into a national trend. Eight states in the past decade have rolled back the death penalty, an accelerated pace mimicking the rapidly changing public opinion surrounding same-sex marriage that started at the same time.

Public opinion over these two cultural wedge issues of the 1990s has changed dramatically since that time. And in blue states, both public opinion and public policy have moved significantly since Bill Clinton said Democrats "should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent" with capital punishment. (To prove he was tough on crime, Clinton left the campaign trail in 1992 to preside over the execution of convicted murderer Rickey Ray Rector.) Clinton also later signed the Defense of Marriage Act barring federal recognition of same-sex marriages two decades ago.

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Now, more than 100 million people live in states without the death penalty. Like Washington, Oregon's death-penalty rollback is a pause, not a full repeal: Gov. John Kitzhaber announced a moratorium on executions in 2011. Six other states have permanently ended capital punishment since 2004. New York kicked things off with a court decision that year finding capital punishment unconstitutional, a verdict finalized in 2007. That's the year New Jersey enacted the country's first death-penalty repeal legislation in decades. New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland all followed suit in the last seven years. No states had moved to undo their death penalties in the 20 years before New York did a decade ago.

The same day that Inslee announced his decision in Washington, a state House committee in New Hampshire voted 14-3 to advance a death-penalty repeal bill there. According to the Concord Monitor, some of the supporters had previously voted against repealing capital punishment.

Washington's move is a temporary one, but Inslee said Tuesday that a goal of his decision was to push the state to decide more permanently if it still wants to impose death on some criminals. "With my action today I expect Washington state will join a growing national conversation about capital punishment," Inslee said in a speech. "I welcome that and I'm confident that our citizens will engage in this very important debate."

Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said states that impose moratoriums often go on to abolish the death penalty entirely. "New Jersey had a moratorium and eventually became an abolition state," Dieter said. "Illinois took 11 years and a number of governors before they abolished it, but it did end up that way. But there have been states where executions were on hold and they got back to them. One governor doesn't control things."

Support for the death penalty for murders, which peaked at 80 percent in 1994, according to Gallup, has declined markedly since. The last time the polling company measured public opinion, in October, support was down to 60 percent, the lowest mark since the 1970s.

While support for capital punishment trends downward, support for same-sex marriage has swung up at about the same rate, from 27 percent in 1996 to 54 percent last year, again according to Gallup. And again, 17 mostly Democratic-leaning states have moved to allow same-sex marriages, starting with Massachusetts via a court decision in 2004.

Both overlapping collections of states — those without a death penalty and those with same-sex marriage — are clustered in the Northeast and Upper Midwest and on the West Coast. President Obama won every state that legalized same-sex marriage in both 2008 and 2012 and recorded the same perfect record in the states that have rolled back capital punishment, too.

So far, Republican-leaning states haven't joined the last decade worth of activity on the death penalty and same-sex marriage, reflecting how public opinion on both issues does remain polarized. But the burst of legislation, court decisions, and gubernatorial decisions in these blue states demonstrate how these two "culture war" issues of two decades past have joined the political mainstream.