The dawn of the 21st century marked a turning point in the history of the American death penalty. Politically, the death penalty seemed vulnerable. A wave of abolitionism not seen since the Progressive Era took hold in the 2000s, as six states abandoned the death penalty, and governors in five others instituted moratoria, promising to use their executive power to stay all executions while they remained in office. While the Supreme Court remained committed to the constitutionality of the death penalty, it slowly chipped away at it in a series of decisions that narrowed the range of persons whom the state could execute.
Public support for the death penalty, already in decline during the late 1990s, continued to fall in the 21st century. A number of factors depressed support for the death penalty to levels not seen since the early 1970s: a decline in violent crime and fear of crime; highly publicized DNA-based exonerations of death-row inmates; and wariness of the cost of maintaining the death penalty, particularly during the great recession of the late 2000s.
The use of the death penalty was declining as well. The expansion of life without parole as an alternative punishment in the 1990s and 2000s gave juries in some states harsh alternatives to death sentences that they did not previously have. Longer-term changes to the judicial and penal administration of the death, meanwhile, continued to make the path between conviction and execution longer and more difficult for state officials to traverse. Most offenders sentenced to death since the 1970s were not (or have not yet been) put to death, and the average wait on death row for those who have been executed has grown to over a decade and a half. Growing problems with the practice of lethal injection, meanwhile, have posed new problems for states seeking to execute capital defendants in the 2000s, producing new legal battles and bringing executions nationwide to a temporary halt in 2007–2008.
The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, however, may portend a slowing or reversing Americans’ 21st-century turn away from the death penalty.
Jonathan Grossman and Ami Pedahzur
Since 2001, unprecedented resources have been invested in research into global terrorism, resulting in a dramatic rise in the number of academic publications on the topic. Works by scholars from predominantly quantitative disciplines predominate in this literature, and the unfolding development of data science and big data research has accentuated the trend. Many researchers in global terrorism created event databases, in which every row represents a distinct terrorist attack and every column a variable (e.g., the date and location of the attack, the number of casualties, etc.). Such event data are usually extracted from news sources and undergo a process of coding—the translation of unstructured text into numerical or categorical values. Some researchers collect and code their data manually; others use an automated script, or combine the efforts of humans and software. Other researchers who use event data do not collect and process their data at all; rather, they analyze other scholars’ databases. Academics and practitioners have relied on such databases for the cross-regional study of terrorism, analyzing their data statistically in an attempt to identify trends, build theories, predict future incidents, and formulate policies.
Unfortunately, event data on terrorism often suffer from substantial issues of accuracy and reproducibility. A comparison between the data on suicide terrorism in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in two of the most prominent databases in the field and an independent database of confirmed events reveals the magnitude of these problems. Among the most common pitfalls for event data are replication problems (the sources that the databases cite, if there are any at all, cannot be retrieved), selection bias (events that should have been included in the database are not in it), description bias (the details of events in the database are incorrect), and coding problems (for example, duplicate events). Some of these problems originate in the press sources that are used to create the databases, usually English-language newspaper articles, and others are attributable to deficient data-gathering and/or coding practices on the part of database creators and coders. In many cases, these researchers do not understand the local contexts, languages, histories, and cultures of the regions they study. Further, many coders are not trained in qualitative methods and are thus incapable of critically reading and accurately coding their unstructured sources. Overcoming these challenges will require a change of attitude: truly accurate and impactful cross-regional data on terrorism can only be achieved through collaboration across projects, disciplines, and fields of expertise. The creators of event databases are encouraged to adopt the high standards of transparency, replicability, data-sharing, and version control that are prevalent in the STEM sciences and among software developers. More than anything, they need to acknowledge that without good and rigorous qualitative work during the stage of data collection, there can be no good quantitative work during the stage of data analysis.