THE RHETORIC OF ABOLITION: CONTINUITY AND CHANGE IN THE STRUGGLE AGAINST AMERICA'S DEATH PENALTY, 1900-2010

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From: Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology(Vol. 107, Issue 4)
Publisher: Northwestern University, School of Law
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,703 words
Lexile Measure: 2230L

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This article seeks to understand when, how, and where the framing of arguments against capital punishment has changed. While others have focused exclusively on the national level, we studied the framing of abolitionist arguments in three American states: Connecticut, Kansas, and Texas. Each is located in a different region of the country, and each has its own distinctive death penalty history. We studied the framing of arguments against the death penalty from 1900 to 2010. Our study suggests that the rhetorical reframing of the campaign against capital punishment that has occurred at the national level has had deep resonance at the state level. Over the course of the 20th century in Connecticut, Kansas, and Texas, the focus on error and arbitrariness has assumed greater prominence among abolitionists. In each state, this change began to take hold in the late 1960s and 1970s and accelerated as the 20th century drew to its close. But, in each state, older frames persisted. Older arguments continued to occur with greater frequency than the new abolitionism.

TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION 758 I. TEXAS 763 II. CONNECTICUT 768 III. KANSAS 775 CONCLUSION 779

INTRODUCTION

Today the United States seems to be on the road to abolishing the death penalty. Support for capital punishment, which for the last quarter of the 20th century appeared firmly entrenched, is weakening. (1) Moreover, across the U.S., the number of death sentences has dropped from a high of 315 in 1994 to forty-nine in 2015. (2) Mirroring this trend, the number of executions peaked in 1999, and has been steadily declining over the past fifteen years, reaching a twenty-four year low in 2015. (3) While thirty-one states still retain the death penalty, (4) sixteen of those states and the federal government have not executed anyone in the past five years. (5)

There are, of course, many possible explanations for the changing situation of capital punishment. Relatively low rates of violent crime and the growth of life in prison without parole sentences are two such explanations. (6) However, if the American death penalty eventually does end, it will be in no small part because abolitionists altered their political and legal arguments and, in doing so, successfully reframed the death penalty debate. (7)

Communications scholar Robert Entman broadly defines the term "framing" as "any effort to influence public opinion through the formulation of messages." (8) Issues of political import in a democracy are almost always being framed "as various political entrepreneurs [attempt] as best they can to affect the debate given changes in the stream of information coming in from forces beyond their control." (9) The framing of complex issues involves social, cultural, and political elements. In this way, debates surrounding the death penalty resemble other hot button issues in the United States.

The importance of framing in political contests is illustrated by the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. Teresa Godwin Phelps notes that an "unprecedented shift in the rhetoric used about gays and lesbians--the names they are called, the kinds of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A515383467