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Is Vigilantism on Your Mind?: An Exploratory Study of Nuance and Contradiction in Student Death Penalty Opinion

NCJ Number
Criminal Justice Studies Volume: 20 Issue: 3 Dated: September 2007 Pages: 255-268
Angela M. Schadt; Matt DeLisi
Date Published
September 2007
14 pages
A convenience sample of 218 undergraduates in introductory criminal justice courses at a large midwestern university completed a questionnaire that contained statements about the death penalty and vigilante justice in order to examine any link between vigilante beliefs and death penalty opinion.
The majority of the students favored capital punishment; 65-71 percent of the students favored capital punishment regardless of the questionnaire item; however, support percentages varied according to the rationales inherent in the statements about which students expressed degrees of agreement or disagreement. These statements referenced four death penalty rationales: just deserts ("People who commit murder deserve to be executed"); the reciprocity of lex talionis ("Certain criminal actions warrant a person losing his/her natural right to life"); fiscal pragmatism ("The death penalty should be abolished because it is too costly"); and libertarianism ("The state should never have the authority to execute its citizens"). The percentage of students who disagreed with capital punishment ranged from 12 percent for the fiscal pragmatism argument to nearly 22 percent for the just deserts approach. In other words, the proportion of death penalty opponents in the sample almost doubled depending on the underlying rationale of the death penalty statement. The remaining questionnaire items yielded responses that indicated substantial and sometimes dramatic support for vigilantism, which involves support for killing as a justifiable act of revenge. Almost 80 percent of the students said they would be tempted to hurt a person who victimized a family member. The authors discussed the implications of these findings for research, instruction, and student understanding of the death penalty. Students were administered the Criminal Justice Values Survey, which contains many conceptually varied statements intended to measure student opinion about various criminal justice system policies. Ten statements pertained to vigilantism and capital punishment. Responses to these statements were the focus of the current study. 2 tables, 1 figure, and 41 references