Friday, November 08, 2013

Trib poll reveals opinions about frequency of wrongful convictions, privacy

The Texas Tribune has been publishing a series based on a recent, statewide poll of 1,200 Texans, with a margin of error of +/- 3.3%, and today Ross Ramsey has a writeup that includes a discussion of findings related to privacy and the death penalty. Unsurprisingly, Texans still strongly support the death penalty (by a 74-20 margin), but more remarkable was data on how often people think wrongful convictions occur in capital cases:

I'm not too surprised by that result. Grits has long held that death-penalty abolitionists who believe finding an innocent person has been executed - whether it's Carlos de Luna, Todd Willingham, or somebody else - will change public attitudes are deluding themselves. Texans recognize that extensive use of the death penalty risks executing an innocent person. For the most part their attitude seems to be, "shit happens." One might lament it, but that doesn't change the facts.

The poll also asked Texans' opinions on which institutions they thought likely to invade their privacy, and remarkably local police came in at about the same rates as President Obama and were less trusted than bankers, of all people:

See the full story for more details and links to crosstabs, for those interested.


Lee said...


I do acknowledge that people seem too casual about the innocent person being executed as mere disposable casualties. Is something wrong with the American character to be so bloodthirsty to the point of carelessness?

Anonymous said... most things, American's are all for the death penalty, imprisonment, registries and other forms of state sponsored punishment UNTIL it affect them or someone they love. Sure, you hear people scream for the death penalty, but how loud would they scream if it was one of their children sitting on death row.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:10, people rail against DWI but how many would support alcohol prohibition? Likely about the same percentage as oppose the death penalty.

I don't actually see the public's stance on this as disconsonant. Rather, I think abolitionists have made and keep making the wrong case. The public is making a cost-benefit analysis - they think a few innocent lives are worth it because they believe the death penalty is a deterrent to murder and they fear murder more than they fear wrongful convictions. (Just like they think getting to drive is worth the risk of innocents dying in traffic accidents.) Statistically, from a purely selfish perspective, that prioritization is probably justified. If abolitionists want to win (as opposed to just feel morally superior), they must make the case that the death penalty fails at accomplishing its goals. Portraying killers as victims or emphasizing a handful of innocence cases are both losing strategies.

Meanwhile, more non-capital inmates die in Texas prisons every month than die in the execution chamber every year, many of them because of inadequte healthcare. But there are 50 or more abolitionists for every one person working to improve prison healthcare. It won't make me popular in certain circles to say so, but the issue isn't that Texans are "bloodthirsty," as 9:28 would have it; it's that abolitionists aren't nearly as clever or morally superior as a lot of them think they are.

Pimp Daddy Juicy Cheeks said...

Interesting point raised, distinguishing between healthcare reform as leading to greater livelihoods for prisoners (majority of them) vs. DP abolition for a few prisoners (minority), even accounting for a distribution of judicial and litigious errors between both categories of punishment (imprisonment and execution), which I don't believe is true (considering the particulars at stake in each category).

Larry Laudan has written extensively on the subject of perceived error in adjudicated results vs. the costs we accept in the actual error rate to get the bulk of our criminals punished. It's the Blackstone ratio again and again.

Anonymous said...

GFB said: "The public is making a cost-benefit analysis".

Based upon conversations I have had, this is certainly the case for many folks who strongly identify as pro-DP, a number of whom have told me directly that a few innocent people being executed is okay given the overall deterrent effect of the death penalty.

However, the run-of-the-mill pro-DP people I have talked to are not okay with the concept of innocent people being executed. They are very much against it. But they do believe that there are effective safeguards that prevent it from happening. In particular, the belief has been expressed to me that, although innocent people may be convicted in the guilt/innocence phase, the appellate process is so effective at correcting those mistakes that it essentially guarantees that no innocent person is ever executed. I find that a remarkably naive view. But many people hold on to it because they find the idea of innocent people being executed repellent.

The survey question asks about innocent people being convicted, and not about innocent people being executed. I suspect that if the question had been asked about execution, most people would say that it never happens or almost never happens, specifically because they believe the appellate process is effective.

Anonymous said...

Anderson got jail:

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"although innocent people may be convicted in the guilt/innocence phase, the appellate process is so effective at correcting those mistakes that it essentially guarantees that no innocent person is ever executed"

I for one don't believe that "no innocent person is ever executed" - I think at least two and probably more have been - but I do believe that many erroneous DP convictions are caught in the appellate process - Anthony Graves, Kerry Cook, etc. ... The perception that the appellate process catches mistakes is true, though that doesn't happen in every case and it's not close to foolproof.

Still, IMO too many death penalty opponents underestimate the intellect of those on the other side of the debate. If they ever want to win, their arguments must improve.

Harry Homeless said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harry Homeless said...

I certainly understand the idea (however false and misguided) that it serves the greater good if a society kills a few innocents along the way to supposed deterrence (despite the raging hypocrisy that none who support that view are themselves willing to be that victim).

However, what truly makes a society safe is preserving the principle of justice. It's the same as not breathing air as being without justice. You can try it for a while but it's doomed to failure. Seems a whole bunch of dummies have to learn that the hard way.

Anonymous said...

I've worked with anti-dp groups for a long time, and I have never run across anyone who believes that proving that an innocent person has been executed will be a magic bullet that will cause 100% of Texans to become anti-dp. They do believe that being able to talk about a specific wrongfully convicted person who went through the entire judicial process and ended up incorrectly executed by the state will lead some and perhaps may people to rethink their support of the dp. Shifting public opinion is always a slow, incremental process.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:16, I've know quite a few abolitionists who thought majority opinion would flip if they found that magic bullet ("cause 100% of Texans to become anti-dp" is a red herring, since 100% don't agree on anything). If they or you think even "some or perhaps many" will change their views after that example they're also wrong. The polls consistently show that even the majority of people who believe we've ALREADY executed an innocent person still support the death penalty. It's just a failed approach.

I agree shifting public opinion is a slow and incremental process. That's why, if they want to win, they should abandon failed tactics and get started confronting the issue in ways that have a chance to succeed, or else shift focus to battles that can be won, like the health care issues that would save more lives and affect many, many more people.

Petra de Jong said...

I'm pretty sure that several innocent people have been executed by the state of Texas (not to speak of those who have been convicted of capital murder where it should have been "just" murder, though people probably couldn't care less about those). I agree with you that proving this fact will not sway millions of people, though I do think it's important to prove that it has happened and it is still happening.

To me as an abolitionist the most important thing to strive for would be to take away misconceptions about how the DP is being applied (and indeed how effective it is in reaching its imagined goals), since people mostly seem to think it is being applied fairly (do these people only watch Fox News?), which could not be further from the truth.

The health care issue I have dealt with on a very personal level. I have a very dear friend on Texas Death Row who has been struggling with inadequate health care for years and years and years and who is suffering greatly as a consequence. I have found it very hard to combat this, it's been very discouraging. It is too late for him now (he's about to be executed) but I would be more than willing to put time and effort into this issue for others who are suffering.

Down on the Corner said...

AS a DP abolitionist, I can hear your argument, Grits. Can you point to reliable studies that can be used to argue that it does not deter the crime it supposedly prevents? I am not interested in anecdotal arguments--just the data. I don't know where to find this information.

Lee said...

A cost benefit analysis you say?

Are people really that psychopathic?

South Tex said...

You want proof DP is a pretty good deterrent?

Look at the UCI for states with the death penalty as opposed to states with no DP.

Not to mention lets look at gun friendly states vs. non gun friendly states.

The courts do the best they can with what they get. Personal liberties and protections can in fact work against the individual whenever they are not entirely in control of their own appeal.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Lee's accusation that people who disagree with him are psychopathic is a great example of preferring feeling morally superior to adopting tactics with a chance of success. It's also hypocritical. For example, I'm sure Lee chooses to drive even though auto deaths kill far more innocent people than the death penalty. That doesn't make him or other drivers "psychopaths." They've made a cost benefit analysis that the risk of innocents dying in auto accidents - and that happens at far greater rates than innocents are killed in Texas death chambers - is worth the trade-off. As a practical matter, everyone who drives agrees with that, whether they admit it or not.

Down on the Corner, as South Tex mentions there are lots of ways to demonstrate that point. Google is your friend and there are plenty of studies on the topic. But it's also an issue of messengers, messaging and framing, not just facts. There are lots of layers to effective advocacy.

My first suggestion for rethinking the issue would be to read (or re-read - as I do once every year or two) Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War.' IMO Thomas Cleary's is the best translation. You can read much of Sun Tzu's advice as a metaphor for rhetorical and political approaches. I find that book immensely helpful in framing issues and distinguishing effective and ineffective strategies and tactics. IMO abolitionist leadership has failed the movement pretty consistently, letting pride and hubris turn the effort effectively into a do-gooder suicide pact that wastes activist energy and resources which might actually accomplish something if failure were viewed as a negative consequence as opposed to a badge of honor.

Finally, to Petra, try addressing the health care issue more broadly, not just insofar as it affects your "friend" the murderer on death row. Lots more people are affected by poor prison healthcare than the least sympathetic cadre of prisoners, and I think you'd find you'll get farther working on the issue if you chose better poster boys as examples for what needs to be fixed.

Bottom line: When your advocacy fails repeatedly, it's rarely the fault of your opponents. In my experience, it's usually a failure of the advocates themselves to fully think through the issue and critically evaluate their own role in why they didn't succeed.

Anonymous said...

It is so cute that GFB can't distinguish between people dying because of accidents, and people dying because other people kill them. My step-daughter also had difficulty with ths concept, when she was six.

Lee said...

Scott, I am just advocating that for no reason should an innocent life be taken and is completely exclusive to the pursuit of justice. I use the term psychopath to refer to those whom seem to so easily disregard this per the "cost benefit analysis" and the innocent defendants as disposable causalities not people (though none would volunteer themselves or their loved ones to be in the hotseat).

Also I do not own a vehicle and live close enough within Houston to commute using the METRO Bus system and bike. I got tired of the financial leach that my suv used to be.

The difference in your comparison of the risk of death associated with airplanes or cars is that most accidents are in fact accidents. A deliberate execution is not an accident.

Anonymous said...

Most anti-dp people are much more concerned with the New Testament than they are with Sun Tzu. Because of this, they view their policy adversaries not as enemies to confuse and decieve (the core approach of Sun Tzu), but as friends and neighbors to sit down and have a conversation with. That may be a poor approach to policy advocacy. But it is a good approach to ministry.

Petra de Jong said...

He is my friend, not my "friend".

I have not always been an activist, that is a relatively recent thing. Which is part of the reason why, up until now, I have pretty much only concerned myself with this particular person who has been suffering at the hands of TDCJ. I have not used him as a "poster boy" since I have never publicized anything on the matter, I have only tried getting him help through getting in touch with the TDCJ / Ombudsman / Patient Liaison etc. And THAT has been very discouraging since you always get the same BS answers.

There used to be an advocacy group (I forget their name) that concerned themselves with this issue, but they, too, did it on a case-to-case basis (organizing letter writing campaigns, phone call campaigns etc). Haven't heard from them in years, though.