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Case Study: Advocating an End to the Death Penalty

This article originally appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review as part of our Case for Communications series.

The Atlantic Philanthropies and its network of partners are using advocacy and communications to end capital punishment in the United States once and for all.

The use of the death penalty in the United States is arguably one of the country’s most controversial political issues. The United States stands practically alone among democracies that use capital punishment. From 2007-2012, it trailed only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq in the number of its citizens that it put to death.

In 2006, as follow-up to its previous work to abolish the death penalty for juveniles, The Atlantic Philanthropies joined with a number of other funders and grantees, and developed a comprehensive strategy to abolish the death penalty completely. Effective advocacy communications anchored the strategy, and the work appears to be paying off. A recent independent evaluation by researchers Michael Quinn Patton and Kay Sherwood found that the campaign contributed to the momentum toward abolition.

Understanding that changing public opinion and establishing legal precedents would take a great deal of time, Atlantic and some half dozen funding partners and advocates dubbed the campaign Abolition2025. The campaign established a national steering committee and a national campaign coordinator, and funded a number of national anchor organizations, including Equal Justice USA and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. It also convened regular meetings and conferences, bringing together all aspects of the abolition movement to develop national and state-by-state strategies, and to share best practices. The goals of the campaign were to:

1. Change public discourse about the death penalty. Reversing the existing norm— the belief that the death penalty was an appropriate punishment—was a critical part of the campaign strategy. The campaign decided to focus on changing public discourse, with the idea that it would ultimately cause more states to ban executions, fewer prosecutors to seek capital punishment, and fewer juries and judges to sentence people to death. To achieve this, Rebecca Rittgers, who directed Atlantic’s death penalty grantmaking at the time, noted the need for a forceful communications strategy to “build up in the American ethos an understanding that the standards of decency have evolved.” “Standards of decency” define what is considered cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. If advocates could demonstrate that societal norms about the death penalty had shifted significantly, it would communicate to the Supreme Court that so-called “standards of decency” had evolved in such a way that the death penalty could be considered cruel and unusual, and was no longer an acceptable practice.

2. Get states to repeal the death penalty. Effective communications and targeted policy advocacy are mutually reinforcing. Grassroots efforts supporting legal efforts to move states toward reducing or ending their use of the death penalty would help advance the narrative that the punishment was outmoded. As states abandoned the death penalty, and as juries, prosecutors, and the public rejected the practice, advocates would give voice to a national consensus to demonstrate the evolving standards of decency.

3. Persuade the Supreme Court to overturn the death penalty. For this approach to succeed, litigants would need to make the case that the standards of decency had evolved to a point where the legal system must consider the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Changing the Public Discourse

Lawyers, grantees, and other campaign advocates attempted to change attitudes about the death penalty by raising awareness of the death penalty system’s many failings: It is expensive, disproportionately affects low-income people and people of color, could kill innocent people, and fails to deter crime. Moreover, it is unevenly applied—a mere two percent of US counties issue 50 percent of death sentences. These messages were delivered in state-by-state campaigns, as well as via broad communications efforts carried out by national advocacy organizations. It employed a spectrum of tactics, including social media, op-eds, coordinated letters to the editor, paid advertising, personal presentations, and in one case, a commissioned play. It was also essential that this information came from credible messengers capable of swaying opinion—including evangelicals and conservatives who believe capital punishment is ineffective, wasteful, and unjust; victims’ families, who believe the lengthy death penalty process prevents them from achieving closure, and argue that the money saved by closing death row could be better spent for victims’ services or to reopen cold cases; and the falsely convicted, who are living proof of the failure of a system to protect the innocent.

Getting States to Repeal the Penalty

A campaign led by the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty—a small, grassroots organization funded by the campaign—provides an excellent example of the power of multi-faceted advocacy. The campaign targeted the New Mexico legislature, with the goal of passing a bill that would repeal the state’s use of the death penalty. Tactics included:

  • Message development: The campaign worked closely with religious leaders, victims’ families, legislators, litigators, and outside consultants to develop sets of messages they felt would resonate with the public, elected officials, and the governor. The campaign continued to refine its messages over time.
  • Grassroots advocacy: In advance of the 2009 legislative session, death penalty opponents held events across the state at schools, churches, nonprofits, and elsewhere to prepare participants for an “Advocacy Day” in the state capital. On that day, advocates fanned out across Santa Fe, meeting with elected officials, holding press conferences, and making their voices heard.
  • Media outreach: Media outreach included national and international television, print, and radio interviews, and even included a play that told the story of an exonerated death row inmate.
  • Direct policy advocacy: The campaign worked closely with sympathetic legislators to craft a repeal bill and help shepherd it through the legislature to the Governor’s desk.
  • Lobbying: After intense lobbying, the New Mexico House and Senate sent a repeal bill to Governor Bill Richardson, who had previously stated his support for the death penalty. He was persuaded to sign the bill, citing many of the arguments put forward by the coalition.

This was just one of a number of important success stories. From 2007-2013, four other states abolished the death penalty—New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland— due in no small part to state advocacy campaigns. In addition, the New York Court of Appeals ruled the death penalty unconstitutional. Tactics varied from state to state. In New Jersey, a state known for providing competent public defenders for the accused, the campaign focused on how to reduce the number of capital cases going to trial. Maryland, by contrast, focused on the problem of putting innocent people to death; messaging featured inmates who were exonerated using DNA evidence. In each case, strategies that were responsive to local contexts proved effective.

Outcomes to Date

Last year, the fewest number of death sentences (49) were handed down since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, and the number of states that performed an execution (6) was the smallest in 25 years. Since 2005, death sentences have decreased by almost half; executions have decreased by more than half; states carried out the fewest number of executions (28) in 20 years; and the number of states performing executions has decreased by more than half.

Importantly, for the first time in history the Washington Post/ABC news poll on the death penalty showed that a majority of Americans favor life imprisonment without parole over the death penalty (52 percent vs. 42 percent).

Meanwhile, 19 state legislatures have abolished the death penalty. And although, as mentioned above, 31 states still retain the death penalty, only six of them actually carried out executions in 2015. Seven states, the US Federal Government, and the US Military are now de facto abolitionist by UN standards; they have not executed anyone in at least the past 10 years.

Funders are also building momentum through the Themis Fund, a pooled donor fund created to support anti-death penalty efforts. The fund supports the Eighth Amendment Project(which evolved from Abolition2025), a national campaign organization focused on overturning the death penalty in the Supreme Court.

Advocates have used grassroots organizing to put pressure on legislators, designed smart communications to highlight the issue, and taken politically savvy approaches to identifying audiences and creating messages that speak to their audience’s values—invariably delivered by credible messengers. As we have noted, this work supported significant litigation, which has played an essential role. But there is much more to do. As The Atlantic Philanthropies—a limited-life foundation scheduled to conclude its grantmaking this year—exits the field, we are pleased to share what we’ve learned so that others can continue this important work. We believe the momentum exists to ensure that advocacy, communications, and litigation will succeed in making the case to end the use of the death penalty once and for all.


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