University of Missouri - Saint Louis

The Graduate School


An oral examination in defense of the dissertation for the degree

Doctor of Philosophy in Criminology and Criminal Justice

Ethan Amidon
M.A. in Criminology and Criminal Justice, May, 2009, University of Missouri-St. Louis
B.A., Criminology and Criminal Justice, May, 2003, University of Maryland-College Park

Lightning Strikes Twice: An Examination of the Political Factors Associated with State-Level Death Sentences and Executions in the United States, 1930-2012



Over the course of the last 50 years, scholars have emphasized the role that political processes play in shaping the nature of capital punishment practices. Empirical studies that have examined the relationship between political factors and capital punishment have attributed variation in the imposition of death sentences and the execution of offenders across jurisdictions in the United States to the politicization of criminal justice policies and practices and the shift in public sentiment towards more punitive ideologies that began in the 1970s. Even though historians have argued that these practices have always been shaped by political considerations, empirical research on the social determinants of the death penalty has restricted its focus to the period following the Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia. Due to the restricted temporal scope used in prior empirical studies, it is unknown whether these political theories have captured historically specific factors associated only with post-Furman capital punishment practices (proximate causes) or whether they can explain the occurrence of these practices over the course of long historical periods (ultimate causes). In addition, it is not known whether the politicization of the death penalty changed the relationship between state-level political factors and capital punishment practices across the pre- and post-Furman time periods.

In order to address these gaps in the literature, this study examined whether three post-Furman political perspectives were able to account for the imposition of death sentences and the execution of offenders in US states from 1930 to 2012. The study also examined whether factors specific to the pre- and post-Furman eras moderated the relationship between state-level political factors and death penalty practices. The findings indicate that the predictive power of post-Furman political variables was not restricted to the last third of the 20th century. The social and political factors identified in post-Furman empirical studies, therefore, are not proximate manifestations particular to the time period following the Furman decision. The reconfiguration of political party lines and the adoption of new ideologies regarding correctional practices in the 1970s did not significantly alter the drivers long associated with capital punishment practices in the United States.


Date: November 8, 2013

Time: 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Place: Jim Short Conference Room, 325 Lucas Hall


Defense of Dissertation Committee


Richard Rosenfeld, Ph.D. (Chair)

Richard Wright, Ph.D.


Michael Campbell, Ph.D.

Bruce Western, Ph.D.