Political science major Abigail Flynn first became interested in the death penalty in high school when she conducted research for a database of international death penalty policies at the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center for International Human Rights. Her interest was later furthered by Assistant Professor Zachary Oberfield’s public policy analysis seminar, for which Flynn wrote a paper on the abolition of capital punishment in her home state of Illinois. So when it came time to write her senior thesis, Flynn (who also minored in French and concentrated in Peace, Justice, and Human Rights) knew what she wanted to study. The result was “Deciding on Death: The Diffusion of Capital Punishment Policy Between the United States Supreme Court and the State Legislatures.”
“I wanted to see if the Supreme Court influences state legislative action on the death penalty so as to better understand how this situation could fit into the public policy diffusion literature and to help activists understand how efforts in one area may affect another area,” says Flynn, who is now working as a research assistant at the Philadelphia public policy think tank the Urban Institute.
How did you conduct your thesis research?
I chose to conduct my research using both quantitative and qualitative methods. I created a data set of all bills introduced in 18 state legislatures from 2000 through 2013, and coded bills for how far they reached in the legislative process, as well as for whether they sought to restrict or expand capital punishment. This gave me a data set of 692 bills that I could use to evaluate whether there are any changes in state action on the death penalty following Supreme Court decisions on the death penalty in the 2000s. And since I knew these methods could help me determine correlation but not causation, I also conducted case studies of specific legislative actions on the death penalty in two states. In these case studies, I looked for influence of the Supreme Court in how political actors discussed and debated the death penalty.
How did your thesis advisor help you develop your topic, conduct your research, and/or interpret your results?
My thesis advisor was Meredith Wooten, a visiting professor in the political science department. Meredith went to Bryn Mawr and wrote an honors political science thesis at Haverford, so she knew exactly what went into writing a good thesis. I also got help from plenty of other professors. Zachary Oberfield was on sabbatical this year, but helped me create my research design. Professor Weiwen Miao in the Mathematics department helped me set up my statistical tests. And finally, I also explored some of the more philosophical questions surrounding death penalty politics in America through my senior seminar for the Peace, Justice, Human Rights concentration with [Assistant] Professor Jill Stauffer. I had a lot of helpers!
What are the implications for your thesis research?
I found that there are no consistent, overarching trends of Supreme Court influence on state legislatures. However, I identified that the period following the 2008 Supreme Court decisions contains a lot of change in how states legislate on the death penalty, including a big increase in the political viability of bills concerning the death penalty. I also found some evidence of an increase in the enactment of bills seeking to expand capital punishment following Supreme Court decisions. This is scary for death penalty abolitionists. The strategy for many activists is to get as many cases as possible to the Supreme Court in the hopes of narrowing the death penalty through court decisions. However, this strategy could be backfiring in terms of states’ potential reactions to these decisions.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of members of the Class of 2014.