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Updated 12:00 noon February 16, 2004



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Distinguished University Professor Lecture
Ellsworth to outline American attitudes toward death penalty

Many Americans passionately support the death penalty, but Phoebe Ellsworth, the Frank Murphy Distinguished University Professor of Law and Psychology, says the public understands the system isn't perfect.

Most Americans now favor the death penalty, she says, while a 1966 Gallup poll showed support of the death penalty at 42 percent, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization.

These days, more death row cases receive media attention as new evidence—such as DNA—overturns convictions. Since 1973, more than 100 people have been released from death row based on evidence of their innocence.

"Most people are still in favor of the death penalty, although they feel it's not working as [well] as they would like it," she says. But support for the death penalty has fallen off somewhat in the last few years, she notes.

Ellsworth will give the Distinguished University Professorship Lecture on "American Attitudes Towards the Death Penalty, 1950-2004" at 4 p.m. Feb. 17 in Rackham Amphitheatre. Her research interests include jury behavior, eyewitness reliability, emotions and issues related to the death penalty.

The death penalty traces its history to 18th century B.C. Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated in the United States, 895 criminals have been executed, but none in Michigan because it is one of 12 states without the death penalty, DPIC reports.

Many Michigan residents favor the death penalty, but minimal effort has been put forth to make it a law, Ellsworth says. In some states, a death penalty sentence can reach $1 million in court costs and appeals. Michigan residents would prefer their tax dollars pay for police officers, she says.

"Status quo is one reason," she says. "If Michigan had a death penalty law and [abolished] it, residents might miss it." Instead, people are more concerned about the economy, health care and terrorism than the death penalty, she says.

Research indicates the death penalty doesn't have any greater deterrent effects on murderers than a life sentence, she says. Ellsworth says people rarely consider the consequences when committing murder.

The death penalty has received much attention as it relates to race. While more white defendants (510) have been executed than Black defendants (307) since 1976, African Americans are overrepresented in prisons as well as on death row, she says.

Ellsworth became interested in the death penalty during graduate school at Stanford University in 1970. She and a professor, Anthony Amsterdam, who is now at New York University, wanted to study the death penalty before it was abolished in 1972. Executions returned as a form of punishment four years later as crime rates soared, Ellsworth says.

The Distinguished University Professorships, created in 1947, provide recipients maximum freedom to pursue scholarly and teaching efforts to contribute to the University and the nation.

Each professorship is named for a person of distinction in the same general field as the recipient, preferably a person associated with U-M. Ellsworth's professorship is named after Frank Murphy, a former Michigan governor and U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Bright Sheng will give the next Distinguished University Lectureship April 6. The Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Music Composition, his talk is entitled "The Silver River."

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