Distrust and Empathy: Explaining the Lack of Support for Capital Punishment Among Minorities

Published date01 June 2019
Date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Distrust and Empathy: Explaining
the Lack of Support for Capital
Punishment Among Minorities
Wanda D. Foglia
and Nadine M. Connell
Public opinion polls show that the majority of people in the United States support capital punishment
but that is because the majority of White Americans support it. Research on the opinions of non-
Whites consistently finds less support. We examine racial and ethnic differences among people who
actually had to decide whether to impose the death penalty, former capital jurors, and hypothesize
that lower support among non-Whites can be explained by the fact that non-Whites are more likely
to distrust the criminal justice system and more likely to show empathy for the defendant in a capital
case, net of defendant and victim race. Using data from the Capital Jury Project, we find support for
this hypothesis in a mediating relationship between race and sentencing vote. Black and Hispanic
jurors are more likely to report distrust of the capital process and higher levels of empathy for the
defendant, both of which lower the probability of a death vote during the sentencing phase of the
trial. We discuss the implications for research, trial strategy, and the future of capital punishment in
light of these findings.
capital punishment, juries, race and crime/justice, distrust, empathy
Public opinion polls show that the majority of people in the United States support capital punishment
but that is because the majority of White Americans support it. The 2017 Gallup Poll shows that,
overall, 55%of adults are “in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder” (Jones,
2017); however, the last time Gallup broke the results down by race reveals that there is a big
difference in the levels of support between Whites and non-Whites. In a combined 20 14–2015
sample, 68%of Whites support the death penalty compared to only 56%of Hispanics and 39%
of Blacks (Dugan, 2015). The 2018 Pew Research Center survey finds 54%overall support, with
59%of White Americans supporting the death penalty compared to only 47%of Hispanics and 36%
of Black Americans (Oliphant, 2018). A review of Gallup Poll results from 1936 to 2006 finds that
Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ, USA
The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Wanda D. Foglia, Rowan University, 201 Mullica Hill Road, Glassboro, NJ 08028, USA.
Email: foglia@rowan.edu
Criminal Justice Review
2019, Vol. 44(2) 204-230
ª2018 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016818796902
Whites consistently have been more likely than non-Whites to support capital punishment (Bohm,
2012), and studies of attitudes conducted by numerous other researchers also find higher support for
the death penalty among Whites (Baker, Lambert, & Jenkins, 2005; Bobo & Johnson, 2004; Cochran
& Chamlin, 2006; Halim & Stiles, 2001; Soss, Langbein, & Metelko, 2003; Unnever & Cullen,
2007a, 2007b).
Race is “one of the strongest and most persistent” correlates of death penalty support (Cochran &
Chamlin, 2006, p. 85). The stronger support among Whites compared to non-Whites remains
significant despite controls for factors such as socioeconomic status and attitudes that have been
suggested as explanations for this racial difference (Cochran & Chamlin, 2006; Unnever & Cullen,
2007b). Cochran and Chamlin (2006) find that Whites are more supportive of the death penalty than
both Blacks and Hispanics, and that, for the most part, variables testing 11 distinct explanations for
the differences in support do not substantially reduce these racial and ethnic differences in the one
national and two local samples analyzed. The only two exceptions are found in one of the local
samples, where controlling simultaneously for all 11 explanations for differences in levels of support
makes race and ethnicity insignificant, and controlling for perceptions of the police makes race
insignificant. The authors interpret this last finding as suggesting that negative perceptions of police
might reflect a distrust of the criminal justice system, in general, and thus less support for capital
punishment, and suggest the need for more research on understanding racial and ethnic differences
in support for the death penalty. The importance of distrust of the death penalty for explaining racial
differences in death penalty supp ort also is suggested by an analysis of Ga llup Poll responses
showing that, although race remains significant, over a quarter of the difference in Black and White
support for the death penalty is attributable to greater belief among Blacks that innocents have been
executed and the death penalty is applied unfairly (Unnever & Cullen, 2005).
Unnever and Cullen’s (2007a) analysis of the General Social Survey finds that Blacks are less
supportive of the death penalty even after controlling for social class, confidence in the government,
conservative politics, regional location, and religious fundamentalism. Their results provide very
little support for the “spurious/social convergence” hypothesis, which assumes racial differences in
support for the death penalty will disappear as Blacks become more similar to Whites in terms of
economic status and attitudes. They argue that the historical legacy of using the law to control slaves,
lynching, and the racist application of the death penalty, along with contemporary evidence that race
still influences the criminal justice process, has had such a profound impact on the way Blacks view
capital punishment that it influences their views regardless of their socioeconomic status (also see
Cochran & Chamlin, 2006; Unnever, Cullen, & Jonson, 2008).
In addition, some of the difference between Black and White support for the death penalty seems
to be explained by White racial prejudice against Blacks (Buckler, Davila, & Salinas, 2008; Unnever
& Cullen, 2007b; Unnever et al., 2008). Surveys repeatedly reveal that prejudice against Blacks is
related to greater support of the death penalty (Barkan & Cohn, 1994; Bobo & Johnson, 2004;
Bratina, Cox, & Fetzer, 2016; Johnson, 2001; Soss et al., 2003; Unnever & Cullen, 2012; Young,
2004). A comparison of Black and White survey respondents exposed to different arguments against
the death penalty shows that while Black respondents are less supportive of capital punishment after
being told that the death penalty discriminates against Blacks, White respondents actually become
more supportive (Peffley & Hurwitz, 2007). Unnever and Cullen (2007b) find that what scholars call
“Jim Crow” racism, which maintains Blacks are biologically inferior, is not related to death penalty
support after other variables are controlled, but what is called symbolic racism is the most robust
predictor of support. Symbolic racism assumes Blacks are culturally inferior in that they are not
trying hard enough to better their socioeconomic status, and dism isses arguments that they are
hindered by the legacy of slavery and discrimination. Unnever and Cullen also use this measure
of symbolic racism to create another variable they call White racism. White respondents’ scores on
White racism reflect the extent their scores on the symbolic racism scale exceed the mean for the
Foglia and Connell 205

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