The Death Penalty

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

The Bottom Line

Majority support for the death penalty across America continues, although it has decreased some from a high point in 1994.

Key Indicator

"Do you favor or oppose the death penalty in cases of murder?"

Stability

Support for the death penalty has varied over time, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s. There has been an 8-point drop in support over the last seven years.

Rigidity

Attitude ranges about 15-20 points based on question wording, but majority support in all instances.

Major Differences

Most significant differences found by race. Non-whites are much less supportive than whites.

Urgency

Pressure for change is small, confined to those who oppose; it is unclear how significant.

Lone Crusader Factor

Most believe that the majority of Americans favor the death penalty; but given the alternative of life imprisonment, the public sees America as more divided. Both are consistent with actual public opinion.

Summary

The death penalty has long been a controversial issue in American society, indeed throughout the world. Most European countries no longer administer the death penalty, and currently 12 of the United States prohibit it. Even though the federal government and the majority of states allow death sentences, opposition continues from prominent religious, civil rights, and civil liberties organizations. The issue consistently finds its way into the news, most recently concerning the application of the death penalty in Texas, Illinois and Maryland. The governor of Illinois instituted a moratorium on the death penalty in that state in 2000, and Maryland's governor did likewise in 2002. The death penalty became a prominent issue with the execution of Oklahoma City bombing mastermind Timothy McVeigh in May 2001.

Current Support for the Death Penalty

Public opinion data make it clear that a majority of Americans support the death penalty. As with many issues, the level of support depends in part upon how the question is phrased. When the public is asked whether they favor the death penalty for a person convicted of murder, 72% of the public currently say they are for the death penalty, 25% say they are opposed, and 5% do not offer an opinion. When the question is posed as a choice between the death penalty and life imprisonment with no possibility of parole, 52% say they prefer the death penalty, while 43% prefer life imprisonment.

In certain specific circumstances, support for the death penalty can be greater than when asked about it in the abstract. This was evident during the time leading up to the execution of Timothy McVeigh. Roughly eight in 10 Americans supported the execution of McVeigh according to three separate polls conducted in the spring of 2001. This included roughly 20% of Americans who say they generally oppose the death penalty, but believe that McVeigh should have been executed. Only about one in six Americans said they opposed the execution of McVeigh.

While Americans generally support the death penalty, many do not do so enthusiastically. In a June 2000 Gallup poll, 57% of those who supported the death penalty said they did so "with reservations."

About seven in 10 Americans are not currently satisfied with the frequency with which the death penalty is imposed, according to a May 6-9 Gallup poll. Forty-seven percent believe the death penalty is not imposed enough, while 22% take the opposite view and say it is imposed too much. Roughly one-quarter of the public, 24%, believes the death penalty is used "about the right amount" of time. The new data show an increase in the percentage who say the death penalty is not imposed often enough (which stood at 38% last year) and a decrease in the percent who say the right amount (34% last year), while the number saying it is imposed too often has remained steady. Historically, the middle option of "the right amount of time" was not explicitly offered to respondents. A February 2000 Gallup poll found 60% saying the death penalty was not imposed often enough, while 26% thought it was imposed too often. These figures are roughly proportionate to what one finds among those with an opinion in either direction when the middle category is included.


Support for the Death Penalty over Time

Gallup has asked the American public its position on the death penalty for over sixty years. In the 1930s, approximately 60% of Americans said they supported the "death penalty" or "capital punishment" in response to several different wordings of the question. Beginning in 1953, Gallup standardized the question wording to read, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" At that time, 68% of the public indicated they were in favor of the death penalty.

Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1970s, Americans continued to favor the death penalty, but not overwhelmingly. The percentage of Americans in favor of the death penalty ranged from 42% to 54% during this period. The year 1966 marked the only time more Americans said they were against the death penalty (47%) than said they were for it (42%). There was much discussion about the constitutionality of the death penalty during this time, and no executions took place in America between 1968 and 1977. The Supreme Court voided all existing state death penalty statutes in Furman v. Georgia (1972), and effectively suspended the death penalty in this country. The Court held that sentencing in death sentences could be "cruel and unusual"-- and thus violate the Eight Amendment-- if they were found to be arbitrary, too severe for the crime, or not more effective than a less severe penalty. However, the ruling stopped short of declaring the death penalty unconstitutional, rather it voided existing death penalty statutes if they could lead to arbitrary sentencing. Four years later, after many states had adopted new death penalty laws which included sentencing guidelines and other reforms, the Supreme Court decided in Gregg v. Georgia that the death penalty was in fact constitutional under the Eight Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

Perhaps in reaction to the Supreme Court decision, public support for the death penalty began to increase in 1976, when 66% indicated they were in favor of it, the highest level of support since 1953. On January 17, 1977, Gary Gilmore was executed in Utah, marking the first execution in the country since 1968. Support for the death penalty remained in the mid-60s for the duration of the 1970s.

Beginning in 1980, the number of prisoners on death row began to rise, and has nearly tripled since then (from 691 in 1980 to 3,711 in 2001). At the same time, Americans' support for the death penalty continued to increase over the next couple decades, pushing past 70% in 1985 and reaching a high of 80% support in 1994. Since then, support has declined, dropping to 68% in October 2001, amid reports that several death row inmates were in fact innocent of the crimes for which they were charged.

Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?


Support for the Death Penalty by Subgroups

For many years, concerns about the racial fairness in the use of the death penalty have been a key element of opposition to the measure. While blacks represent approximately 12% of the United States population, 43% of prisoners sentenced to death are black. The matter was brought before the Supreme Court in McClesky v. Kemp (1987). Despite a statistical analysis that showed wide disparities in death sentences along racial lines, the court ruled that the Georgia death penalty statute only violated the equal protection of the law provision of the Constitution if it can be shown that any racial discrimination against a defendant was intentional. Still, civil rights organizations have long protested the continuing racial imbalance in death sentences. Perhaps because of this debate, opinion on the death penalty varies greatly by race. Whites are much more likely to support the death penalty than are non-whites. Over the years, support for the death penalty among whites has been at least 20 percentage points higher than it has been among non-whites. In the Gallup poll of October 2001, 72% of whites supported the death penalty compared to just 49% of non-whites.

Additionally, differences in support for the death penalty are evident in the following subgroups.

  • Men tend to support the death penalty more so than do women, with support typically 10 percentage points higher among men than women.
  • Republicans are much more likely to favor the death penalty than are Democrats. In the October 2001 Gallup poll, 79% of Republicans say they favor the death penalty compared to 59% of Democrats. Thirty-five percent of Democrats say they oppose the death penalty.
  • Similarly, conservatives are more likely to favor the death penalty (77%) than are liberals (55%).
  • Traditionally, younger Americans-- those under 30-- were less likely to favor the death penalty than Americans over the age of 30. In a Gallup poll of August 29-September 5, 2000, 61% of Americans aged 18-29 favored the death penalty, compared to 67% of 30-49 year olds and 71% of those 50 years and older. More recent polling suggests that that trend may be changing. The October 2001 Gallup poll showed support among 18-29 year olds as high as among older age groups.

The drop in support for the death penalty between 1994 and 2000 generally applied to all subgroups, with each subgroup showing a decline in support more or less commensurate with what was happening in the country as a whole. However, two groups that showed a slightly larger drop in support were those with post-graduate educations, where the level of support dropped 21 percentage points between 1994 and 2001, and Democrats, among whom the level of support dropped 16 percentage points.

Death Penalty Versus Life Imprisonment

Two of the main arguments against the death penalty are the questions of whether it acts as an effective deterrent to violent crime, and whether it violates the Eighth Amendment stipulating that "cruel and unusual punishment" should not be inflicted. Life in prison is frequently offered as the more humane or more effective alternative. Gallup's main trend question does not offer an alternative to the death penalty, only gauging whether the public favors or opposes the death penalty for murder.

The standard Gallup trend question, as reviewed earlier, shows a solid majority of Americans in favor of capital punishment. The public is more divided when the question is phrased as a choice of the death penalty versus life imprisonment. Gallup has asked the public which is a "better penalty for murder-- the death penalty or life imprisonment with no possibility of parole." Americans have favored the death penalty each time this question has been asked, ranging from a low of 50% in August/September 2000 to a high of 61% in August 1997. Support for life imprisonment has ranged from 29% to 47%.

Note that Gallup changed the way this question was asked in 2000, rotating the two alternatives, rather than always presenting the death penalty alternative first. Support for the death penalty goes down slightly using this method, while support for life imprisonment is essentially unchanged.

What do you think should be the penalty for murder -- the death penalty, or life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole?

 

Death
penalty

Life imprisonment

No
opinion (*)

%

%

%

2002 May 6-9**

52

43

5

2001 May 10-14**

51

44

5

2001 Feb 19-21**

57

41

3

2000 Aug 29-Sep 5**

50

47

4

2000 Feb 20-21

52

37

11

1999 Feb 8-9**

56

38

6

1997 Aug 12-13**

61

29

10

1994 June 22

50

32

18

1993 Oct 13-18

59

29

12

1992 Mar 30-Apr 5

50

37

13

1991 Jun 13-16

53

35

11

1986 Jan 10-13

55

35

10

1985 Jan 11-14

56

34

10



(*) No opinion category includes true "no opinion" responses as well as volunteered responses including "Other," "Neither," and Depends.

** Asked of half sample

If you could choose between the following two approaches, which do you think is the better penalty for murder -- [ROTATED: the death penalty (or) life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole]?

 

The death penalty

Life imprisonment

No opinion

%

%

%

2002 May 6-9

52

43

5

2001 May 10-14

52

43

5

2001 Feb 19-21

54

42

4

2000 Aug 29-Sep 5

49

47

4



Public Support for Death Penalty Primarily Based on Justice

On several occasions, most recently in February 2001, Gallup asked supporters why they favored the death penalty. The question is asked in an open-ended format, so respondents provided their own reasons as to why they favored the death penalty. Fifty-seven percent of respondents mentioned something about the punishment fitting the crime, fairness or justice -- that if a person takes another's life, the killer's life should also be taken. Twenty percent of respondents mentioned something about the costs associated with prison and that executing those convicted of murder would save taxpayers money. Ten percent cited the belief that the death penalty acted as a deterrent to crime, while 6% said that the death penalty is a way to make sure the criminals do not repeat their crimes. These responses suggest that much of supporters' reasons for favoring the death penalty lie in philosophical reasons rather than more practical or pragmatic reason that the death penalty offers justice in cases of murder.

Why do you favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder? [Open-ended]

BASED ON -- 613 -- DEATH PENALTY SUPPORTERS; ±4 PCT. PTS.

 

Feb 19-21, 2001

Feb. 19-21,
2001

Feb 14-15, 2000

Jun. 13-16,
1991

(sorted by total mention)


Total Mention


First
Mention

%

%

%

%

An eye for an eye/They took a life/Fits the crime

48

45

40

40

Save taxpayers money/Cost associated with prison

20

15

12

12

Deterrent for potential crimes/Set an example

10

8

8

8

They deserve it

6

5

5

5

Support/believe in death penalty

6

5

--

--

Depends on the type of crime they commit

6

4

6

6

They will repeat their crime/Keep them from repeating it

6

4

4

4

Biblical reasons

3

3

3

3

Relieves prison overcrowding

2

2

--

--

If there's no doubt the person committed the crime

2

1

--

--

Life sentences don't always mean life in prison

2

1

--

--

Don't believe they can be rehabilitated

2

--

1

1

Serve justice

1

--

3

2

Fair punishment

1

--

6

6

Would help/benefit families of victims

1

1

--

--

Other

3

2

10

10

No opinion

1

1

3

3



The fact that so few supporters cite deterrence as a basis for their favoring the death penalty is notable given that many proponents of the death penalty make that argument as a reason why the death penalty is needed. Americans views on the matter have shifted. A 1986 Gallup poll found 61% of the public saying the death penalty would deter people from committing murder. Harris polls conducted in the early 1980s mirrored these results. More recently, polls conducted in 2001 by Harris and ABC News/Washington Post have shown only about four in 10 Americans saying that the death penalty "lowers the murder rate" or "deters others from committing murder," while a majority do not believe this to be the case. And only three in 10 Americans in a May 2001 Gallup poll believed that Timothy McVeigh's execution would act as a deterrent to future acts of violence and murder, while 66% said it would not.

Americans' Support of Death Penalty Fairly Robust

Support for the death penalty does appear to be fairly robust. Americans continue to say they favor it even when some compelling reasons against it are made known to them. Perhaps the most compelling argument is that errors are made in the legal process and as a result innocent people are often sentenced to death. In fact, since 1973 100 prisoners have been removed from death row and given life imprisonment, a new trial, or a new sentence.

The American public is cognizant of the errors associated with the death penalty. The vast majority of Americans-- greater than 80% in several polls by various organizations-- think that innocent people have been executed in this country. In a February 2000 Gallup poll, 91% of Americans said they believed that an innocent person had been sentenced to the death penalty in the last twenty years. In the same poll, Gallup asked Americans what percentage of death penalty convictions they thought were handed down to innocent defendants, and obtained the following results:

Just your best guess, about what percent of people convicted to serve the death penalty are really innocent?

BASED ON --961—BELIEVE THAT INNOCENT PERSON HAS BEEN SENTENCED IN THE PAST 20 YEARS; + 3 PCT PTS

 

0%

1

1-2%

23

3-5%

33

6-10%

14

11-20%

8

More than 20%

10

No opinion

11



The majority of those who believe that innocent people have been sentenced to death think that this has happened 5% of the time or less. The average percentage given was 10%. However, there are notable differences between death penalty supporters and opponents on this measure. Those who oppose the death penalty think an average of 15.6 innocent people have been sentenced to death in the past 20 years, while among supporters the average is 7.1. Thus, even though Americans admit that innocent people are put to death, support for the death penalty remains strong.

As can be seen, this acknowledgement hardly sways Americans from supporting the death penalty. Gallup raised this possibility of the execution of innocent people to death penalty proponents in a May 1995 poll. Seventy-four percent of supporters said they would still favor the death penalty if it were true, while only 20% said they would change their view to opposing the death penalty. An ABC News poll in June 2000 touched on this issue, by pointing out that over two-thirds of death sentences that are appealed are overturned. In light of this, only 25% of Americans said they would be more likely to oppose the death penalty. The majority of Americans -- 58% -- said this fact had no effect on their opinion of the death penalty.

Many critics of the death penalty also argue that the death penalty does not in fact as a deterrent to violent crime, as its proponents claim. In 1999, Gallup asked Americans if they would still support the death penalty if it were shown that it did not act as a deterrent to murder. Fifty-five percent of Americans said they would still favor the death penalty, while 42% said they would oppose it.

Much of the controversy surrounding the death penalty concerns its application, rather than whether it should exist or not. In a May 2002 Gallup poll, 53% thought the death penalty was applied fairly in this country, while 40% did not. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted a month later showed the public equally divided as to whether the death penalty was applied fairly or unfairly in this country.

Perhaps the strongest criticisms of the application of the death penalty concerns the fact that blacks are much more likely to be sentenced to death for similar crimes than are whites. Unfortunately, no existing public opinion data can tie this possibility to support of or opposition to the death penalty. However, in several Gallup polls conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, Americans were asked if they agreed or disagreed that "a black person is more likely than a white person to receive the death penalty for the same crime. The first time this was asked, in 1985, 39% agreed and 53% disagreed. When it was asked in 1991, 45% agreed and 50% disagreed. By 1999, 50% agreed and 46% disagreed, suggesting that over time Americans have become more sensitive to this issue. Even so, support for the death penalty did not show a commensurate drop over this time period.

What these data suggest is that even if Americans are made aware or know of some of the problems associated with the death penalty, they still favor it. However, it should be pointed out that oftentimes support for the death penalty is measured in a survey before related questions concerning the problems associated with it are raised. It is entirely possible that if the issues were raised first and support measured second, that the percentage of Americans favoring the death penalty would drop somewhat, as is the case when the alternative of life imprisonment is offered to survey respondents.

Support for the Death Penalty in Individual Circumstances

The McVeigh case shows that in certain circumstances support for the death penalty in individual cases can vary. In that example, support for the death penalty was higher than it is in general. A recent Gallup poll finds that Americans are less supportive of the death penalty for certain groups. For example, the vast majority of Americans, 82%, say they oppose the use of the death penalty for the mentally retarded, while just 13% support it. Similarly low levels of support are evident as far as applying the death penalty to the mentally ill (19% favor and 75% oppose). This was an issue in the recent case of Andrea Yates, who was sentenced to life in prison rather than death upon being found guilty in the deaths of her five children.

Only about one in four Americans favors the death penalty for juveniles, while 69% are opposed. Historically, Americans have been far less supportive of the death penalty for those under 21 than for adults, but the gap in support may be widening, as support for the death penalty overall increases but support for allowing it for children has been fairly constant. In 1936, at a time when 59% of Americans favored the death penalty, just 26% favored it for persons under age 21. In 1965, just 21% favored the death penalty for persons under age 21, at a time when 45% favored the death penalty in general.

The public does not make an exception for women however, as support for using the death penalty for women (68%) is only slightly lower than it is overall (72%). Over time, it appears as though Americans have become somewhat more supportive of applying the death penalty to women. Gallup last addressed the issue in 1937, and found 60% of Americans favored the death penalty overall and 51% favored it for women.

Support for the Death Penalty for Various Groups,
May 2002


How Does the Public Feel About a Moratorium on the Death Penalty?

As mentioned earlier, the governor of Illinois imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in that state after several death row inmates were later shown to be innocent of the crimes of which they were originally found guilty. While it is fair to say the public is divided on the matter of a death penalty moratorium, it is hard to more precisely characterize aggregate opinion since it is dependent on how the question is asked of respondents.

Gallup has asked two versions of a question on a death penalty moratorium. The first is worded as follows:

"As you may know, Illinois has instituted a moratorium, or temporary halt, on the use of the death penalty until it can be better determined if the death penalty is being administered accurately and fairly in that state. Would you say you favor or oppose such a moratorium on the death penalty in all other states with the death penalty?"

The question gives some background information as to why Illinois imposed the moratorium, but offers no reason why one might oppose it. When asked this way, 53% of Americans favor a moratorium and 40% oppose it.

Another version does provide some justification for opposing a moratorium and yields different results.

"Which comes closer to your view -- there should be a moratorium, or temporary halt, on the death penalty until it can be better determined if the death penalty is being administered accurately and fairly in this country, or there should not be a moratorium, or temporary halt, on the death penalty because there are already sufficient safeguards in the current justice system to prevent the execution of innocent people?"

In this version (in which the two response options were rotated), the data show a majority of 55% opposing the moratorium, while 42% say they favor it.

ABC News/Washington Post asked a question similar in format to this, but found a majority, 51%, in support of the moratorium and 43% opposed. The differing results may be due to the fact that the response alternatives were not rotated in the survey:

"Some people say there should be a halt in all executions in this country while a commission studies whether the death penalty has or has not been administered fairly. Others say there already are enough safeguards to prevent unfair or mistaken executions. What do you think? Would you support or oppose a halt in executions while this issue is studied?"

Taking these two results together, it is possible to say that Americans are divided on the issue of a death penalty moratorium, but the percentage in favor can vary by about 10 percentage points depending on whether arguments for or against the moratorium are provided, and what the content of those arguments is. Certainly, the public's views on a moratorium are subject to change if and when the issue gains momentum.


Popular Conceptions of Support for the Death Penalty

Americans' views on how the public feels about the death penalty are remarkably accurate, but this is due in large part to the fact that most Americans believe the general public feels the same way they do on the issue. When asked to estimate most Americans' views about the death penalty for murder, 60% say most favor it while 28% say most oppose it. Actual opinion is 68% in favor and 26% opposed. About half of those who oppose the death penalty accurately say that most Americans favor it, while 40% of those who are opposed believe most are also opposed. Among death penalty supporters, 67% believe that most Americans favor it and only 24% believe most Americans oppose it.

The results are even more skewed according to one's own views when the life imprisonment alternative is offered to respondents. Overall, Americans feel that the public is divided on the issue, with 44% in favor of the death penalty and 42% in favor of life imprisonment, suggesting a divided country which is generally true on this issue, but not quite to the extent Americans believe (52% favor the death penalty and 43% favor life imprisonment).

The division is probably closer because 46% of those who favor life imprisonment believe most Americans also favor this, while 35% of those who favor life imprisonment believe that more Americans favor the death penalty. Among those who favor the death penalty, 53% believe that most Americans feel likewise, while 39% believe more Americans take the opposite view.



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