Many death penalty advocates are now saying it doesn't matter whether executions deter would-be killers. Retribution alone, they argue, justifies such a harsh sentence. Their argument seems to have had some effect. Public support for the death penalty is higher now than it's been in recent decades. But the actual number of executions each year is still relatively low, and some experts believe this reflects the public's deep-seated ambivalence about the issue.
Capital punishment, the ultimate criminal penalty, commands wider support today than at any time in recent decades. Opinion surveys indicate that almost 80 percent of Americans favor the death sentence for persons found guilty of murder. Moreover, the degree of support is remarkably uniform from region to region and even among groups defined by age, religion or level of education.
Pro-death-penalty sentiment holds sway among jurists, too. Over the past 15 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued several opinions making it more difficult for inmates awaiting execution to have their sentences overturned on appeal. And Chief Justice of the United States William H. Rehnquist has urged Congress to approve legislation limiting the number of appeals that a condemned prisoner may file.