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Legislative Abolition of the Death Penalty: A Qualitative Analysis

Studies in Law, Politics, and Society

ISBN: 978-1-78052-622-5, eISBN: 978-1-78052-623-2

ISSN: 1059-4337

Publication date: 10 February 2012

Abstract

Legislative action was historically the means by which U.S. states abolished capital punishment, but such action ceased for decades following the Supreme Court's 1976 Gregg decision that reaffirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty. Despite the fact that several legislatures have considered abolition bills in the modern era, only three states successfully enacted such legislation. It is my purpose in this study to analyze why states are currently struggling to pass abolition legislation and to determine which factors contribute to success. I conduct a comparative, qualitative case study of New Jersey, the first state to legislatively abolish since 1976, and Maryland, a similar state whose abolition effort recently failed. I analyze the content of legislators’ debates about the abolition bills in committee and on the legislature floor, as well as news coverage of the abolition efforts in each state's largest newspapers. I reach two primary conclusions. First, an abolition bill is more likely to be passed by Democrats than Republicans, but unified Democratic control of the government is not a sufficient condition for abolition. Second, arguments about the risk of wrongful executions and the deleterious collateral consequences of the death penalty process on the family members of murder victims are powerful sources of political support for abolition, especially where doubts about the deterrent effect of the death penalty are widespread. This study reaffirms the central importance of the innocence frame in the modern death penalty debate, and it presents the first scholarly analysis of the collateral consequences frame. These findings may help activists in the abolition movement more effectively frame their arguments to appeal to legislators.

Citation

Wozniak, K.H. (2012), "Legislative Abolition of the Death Penalty: A Qualitative Analysis", Sarat, A. (Ed.) Studies in Law, Politics, and Society (Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Vol. 57), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 31-70. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1059-4337(2012)0000057005

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited