In doing some work for Contexts, the "public sociology" journal that recently came here to Minnesota, I ran across some really interesting work on the death penalty. In addition to finding out that only 10% of those sentenced to death are ever actually executed (crazy, huh?), these two recent artciles by David Jacobs and friends had some pretty interesting findings.
Probably the most interesting was that civil-rights protests reduce both public support for and the number of executions, and are the most important factor in doing so. As a person who's had to answer the "why do you bother protesting? it's not going to change anything" qustion/annoyance several thousand times, that's a pretty comforting finding.
Another major finding in these two articles was that the death penalty is applied in an inherently racist way (surprise, surprise), but that it probably works differently than you think. While the race of the person convicted definitely matters, the race of the victim is the much bigger factor. Not surprisingly, those convicted of killing a white victim are far, far likelier to actually be executed than those sentenced to death for killing a black person.
Anyway, sometimes it's hard to write posts like this because if you still believe the death penalty isn't a racist form of state-sponsored murder, then you most likely live in a gumdrop house at the end of lollipop lane and frolic all day in the sugar cane forests with magic elves and pixies, and therefore scientific findings don't mean anything to you. But nonetheless, I think it's pretty interesting.
If you're a huge nerd and would like to find out more, check out these articles at your local library:
--Jacobs, David and Stephanie L. Kent. 2007. The Determinants of Executions since 1951: How Politics, Protests, Public Opinion, and Social Divisions Shape Capital Punishment. Social Problems 54 (3): 297-318
--Jacobs, David, Zhenchao Qian, Jason T. Carmichael, and Steaphnie L. Kent. 2007. Who Survives on Death Row? An Individual and Contextual Analysis American Sociological Review 72: 610-632