Debate on the death penalty typically centers on the disagreement between those in favor of it and those against it. This article looks at the death penalty from a different angle. By looking at a study by Bohn, Clark, and Aveni (1991) which evolved from three earlier studies conducted by Ellsworth and Ross (1983), Sarat and Vidmar (1976), and Vidmar and Dittenhoffer (1981), the article examines the effects of knowledge on death penalty opinion.
The authors of these studies did so by testing Justice Thurgood Marshall’s three hypotheses developed in his 1972 opinion in Furman v Georgia (1972). Specifically, these hypotheses stated: “(a) the public lacks knowledge about the death penalty and its effects; (b) an informed public generally would oppose the death penalty; and (c) to the degree that retribution provides the basis for support of the death penalty, knowledge will have little effect on public opinion.”
The studies supported all or part of Marshall’s propositions. Nevertheless, “problems relating to social conditions at the times data were collected, and methodology render findings potentially inapplicable to current experience and generally invalid.” The Bohn, Clark, and Aveni study aimed to address these problems.
One problem detected was that when researchers gathered data for these studies, “the issue of the death penalty was ‘abstract,’ as no one was being executed.” However, beginning in 1977 with the execution of Gary Gilmore, the death penalty became a “concrete situation.”
Researchers also found methodological issues. Operationalizing the concepts of being “informed” or “knowledgeable about the death penalty” became problematic. What did Marshall mean by being “informed” or “knowledgeable” about the death penalty? He had never thoroughly answered this question.
They discovered other methodological issues with these earlier studies. The Sarat and Vidmar (1976) study noticed a problem related to “the validity of the experimental stimulus and the experimental manipulation.” The first obstruction involved the form that “knowledge” takes, and the second concerned how “knowledge” was conveyed to subjects. Even Sarat and Vidmar admitted the inadequacies of their study. They wrote:
“Without question, our information manipulations had limited potential for developing a truly informed opinion about the death penalty-the issues are intricate and complex, while the essays are short and simple; furthermore, exposure to the information took place in a brief interview session without time for reflection, discussion, or clarification.”
Vidmar and Dittenhoff (1981) improved the validity of the experimental manipulation in Sarat and Vidmar (1976) by “increasing the opportunity for subjects to assimilate information about the death penalty.” The study still suffered from severe deficiencies despite this improvement:
“First, the experimental group consisted of only 21 non- randomly selected students (18 in the control group). Second, the experimenters had to assume that the subjects did indeed read the assigned material. Third, even if subjects read the material, it was impossible to determine how much of the material was comprehended. Regarding the discussion groups, Vidmar and Dittenhoffer (1981) are probably correct that discussion should enhance conditions for opinion change because active learning is presumed to be more conducive to opinion change than passive learning. However, without supervision, the experimenters could not be sure of what happened in the discussion groups.”
Bohm et al. carefully designed a new battle plan to overcome these difficulties. They “used an experimental manipulation, which provided subjects with more information, provided greater control over the circumstances in which the information was acquired, and allowed subjects more time to evaluate and integrate the information into their systems of beliefs. In the present study, moreover, the influence of gender and race on death penalty opinions were controlled-important considerations neglected in previous studies. Gender and race are principal characteristics that, over the last 50 years, have often distinguished the death penalty opinions of proponents from those of opponents.”
But the Bohm et al. study was not only a response to the Sarat and Vidmar (1976), Vidmar and Dittenhoffer (1981) and Ellsworth and Ross (1983) findings. It also attempted to respond to the findings of Lord, Ross, and Lepper (1979). Unlike the first three studies, this research “discovered that knowledge or information could have an entirely different effect on death penalty opinions than Marshall’s supposed opinion. Lord et al. found that information about the death penalty polarized opinions instead of changing them from in favor to opposed or vice versa. They attributed polarization to biased assimilation, that is, subjects interpreted evidence to maintain their initial beliefs.”
Bohm and his partners felt it was essential to carry out this study because the United States is the only Western industrialized country with the death penalty. They believed public support for the death penalty was a significant factor in retaining this sanction. The main goal of this research was to provide a more thorough understanding of the impact of knowledge on death penalty opinions.
The study tested three hypotheses:(1) The Public Lacks Knowledge About the Death Penalty and Its Effects. (2) An informed Public Generally Would Oppose the Death Penalty. (3) To the Degree that Retribution Provides the Basis for support of the Death Penalty, Knowledge Will Have Little Effect on Public Opinion.
The experimenters identified three main variables:(1) Opinions toward the death penalty. (2) Knowledge about the death penalty, and (3) desire for retribution. Four questions measured opinions toward capital punishment. “Each of the questions,” according to the authors, “represented a different type of support or non-support for the death penalty. The first question was: “Which of the following statements best describes your position toward the death penalty for all persons convicted of first-degree murder? Response categories ranged from “very strongly opposed” to very
strongly in favor” on a 7 -point Likert-type scale.” Bohm, Clark, and Aveni wrote that:
“A second question asked subjects whether they favored the death penalty for “some people convicted of first-degree murder.” Response categories were the same as on the first question except for the 1985 class, where they were “yes,” “no,” and “do not know.” Finally, because prior research (Ellsworth & Ross, 1983; ‘Jurow, 1971) has found that support for the death penalty is greatly attenuated when a distinction is made between support in the abstract and support in concrete situations, two additional “concrete” questions were asked:(a) “If you served on a jury in a trial where the defendant, if found guilty, would automatically be sentenced to death, could you convict that defendant?” and (b) “If asked to do it, could you pull the level that would result in the death of an individual convicted of first-degree murder? Response categories for these two questions were “yes.” “no,” and “do not know.”
The study’s authors also introduced questions measuring “knowledge about the death penalty.” To determine how much their subjects knew about the death penalty, they asked them to answer 14 factual statements concerning capital punishment on both the pretest and post-test. Finally, they measure retribution by calculating a total score for each on eight retribution items.
They employed 272 undergraduate students from a university in northeastern Alabama and placed one hundred and ninety of them in an experimental group and 82 in a control group. They enrolled the students in the experimental group in a unique death penalty class and met for forty hours in four weeks. Furthermore, they asked them to read Bedau’s, The Death Penalty in America (1982). They also observed lectures by the instructor and guest speakers, saw films, and discussed topics concerning the death penalty. In the control group, they put students enrolled in other courses given at the same time as the death penalty class.
The researchers of the study did not randomly choose the students. “Fifty-four percent of experimental group subjects were male, 46% were female, 47% were Black, and 53% were White. Fifty percent of control group subjects were male, 50% were female, 27% were Black, and 73% were White.” Black subjects, therefore, were overrepresented in the experimental group compared to their percentage ratio in the general population.
In analyzing their data, the authors employed statistical analysis. They used percentiles, tables, the McNemer chi-square test, p values, and the Guttman scale.
Results of the Bohm et al. study showed that concerning hypotheses 1 and 3, (a) participants had limited understanding of the death penalty and its effects before taking the capital punishment class, and (b) if they were in support of the death penalty for retribution purposes, knowledge did not change their opinion.
The second hypothesis, which stated that if people were better informed would have objected to the death penalty, found some support in some tests but not others. Generally, African-Americans and females, particularly African-American women, were more willing to reverse their opinions and oppose the death penalty after gaining more information. White males were unlikely to change their opinions.
The study concluded that “classroom knowledge” had some effect but was not strong enough to produce a majority of subjects opposed to capital punishment. A troubling finding was that many students incorrectly believed they had accurate knowledge about the death penalty and its impact, when they did not.
The implications of the findings of this study are also alarming. If the American public is uninformed about the death penalty and its effects, should lawmakers continue to carry out their wishes? Or should they ignore them and, by doing so, ignore the will of the vast majority?
Several restrictions hindered the study. The researchers did not choose any of the subjects randomly. Because they did the research in an isolated location, applying the findings to the entire country is impossible. If they still need to do so, they should replicate studies like this one in many other parts of the country to verify these findings. Finally, a limitation of this study was that it restricted itself to “classroom knowledge” and ignored other types of knowledge.
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