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Will Wisconsin End Unprecedented 153-Year Ban on Death Penalty?

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Wisconsin is one of 13 states plus the District of Columbia that does not currently offer the death penalty as a sentencing option in its criminal courts. The death penalty was abolished in the Badger State in 1853—nearly 120 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled state death penalty statutes to be in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments due to the arbitrary and capricious administration of state law (Furman v. Georgia, 1972).

Wisconsin's 153-year ban is the longest of all states without the death penalty, and the last (and only) execution in Wisconsin was in 1851.

But in May 2006 the republican-controlled Wisconsin State Senate and State Assembly each approved a death penalty referendum (18-15 and 47-45 respectively) that will appear on November's ballot. The referendum is worded narrowly as follows:

"Should the death penalty be enacted in the state of Wisconsin for cases involving a person who is convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, if the conviction is supported by DNA evidence?"

Democratic Governor Jim Doyle does not support the death penalty. But, despite the state's long history without capital punishment, recent polling shows support for the referendum among likely voters at 55% with opposition just shy of 40% (WISC-TV poll, August 2006).

A clear reversal of the nation's longest death penalty ban by voters in November would serve as further evidence that left-leaning states frequently back many right-leaning public policies (e.g. definition of marriage, immigration).

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