Attitudes Toward the Death Penalty for Persons Convicted of Murder

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Attitudes Toward the Death Penalty for Persons Convicted of Murder

United States, Selected Years 1953–2003.


By: The Gallup Organization

Date: 2005

Source: Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2003. Reprinted by permission.

About the Author: This chart was created for the U.S. Department of Justice by the Gallup Organization. The Gallup Organization is an American firm that provides market research, health care, and consulting services on a global scale. It routinely conducts polls to gauge public opinion on various issues. Since its establishment in 1958 by American statistician George Gallup (1901–1984), it has become a respected indicator of public opinion.


The U.S. Department of Justice regularly commissions survey organizations such as the Gallup Organization, which conducted this survey of attitudes toward the death penalty, to assess public attitudes toward crime and punishment issues. The survey results, along with results from the analysis of other primary and secondary information gathering activities, are compiled into an annual Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics and made available to the public online.

The survey of public attitudes toward the death penalty has been conducted sporadically over the past half-century; in recent years it has been conducted nearly annually. The question at issue, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" is one of the central questions in public debate over criminal justice policies in the United States. The U.S. is one of the few industrialized democracies that continues to impose the death penalty (on a state-by-state basis), and understanding the amount of public support for the death penalty is important as state and federal governments review the appropriateness of their criminal justice codes. Having a criminal code that is out of step with public attitudes is not a viable option in American democracy.

Attitudes toward the death penalty for persons convicted of murder
Question: "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?"
Yes, in favorNo, not in favorDon't now/refusedb
aPercents may not add to 100 because of rounding.
bMay include other response categories such as "depends".
SOURCE: The Gallup Organization, Inc., The Gallup Poll [online]. Available: [June 11,2003]; and data provided by The Gallup Organization, Inc. Table adapted by Sourcebook staff. Reprinted by permission.
March 197250%41%9%
November 197257%32%11%
January 198572%20%8%
November 198575%17%8%
May 200370%28%2%
October 200364%32%4%



See primary source image.


Overall, at least a plurality and usually a majority of the American public has been in favor of the death penalty since the survey of death penalty attitudes was inaugurated more than fifty years ago. However, attitudes for and against the death penalty have followed a sinuous trend over that time, and public support for executions briefly dipped below fifty percent of survey respondents in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Examination of the trends in public attitudes for and against the death penalty for persons convicted of murder shows that attitudes favoring the death penalty dropped from initially high levels in the early 1950s and reached a nadir in the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s. This nadir coincides with the so-called "countercultural" phenomenon in the mid-to-late 1960s. However, this downward trend in favorable attitudes was reversed, and approval of the death penalty began to increase, reaching record high levels in the mid-1990s. Since that time, approval of the death penalty has decreased fairly steadily, and at last reading had fallen to percentages not seen since the mid-to-late 1970s.

Notably, the trend toward increasing approval of the death penalty up to the mid-1990s cut across racial and gender categories according to a report posted on the University of Alaska web site. Presumably, the current decline in approval does as well. However, while trends of increase in death penalty support have cut across racial and gender categories, the absolute level of support for the death penalty among blacks, Hispanics, and women is far below that of white males. The difference between whites and blacks in the prevalence of death penalty support appears to be due to the fact that blacks are far more likely to believe that a high proportion of innocent people are executed. Hispanics are about midway between blacks and whites on this issue.

Uncertainty about one's attitude as measured by the "Don't know/Refused" category, seems generally to have decreased since the early years of the survey. This gives the impression that people who had been uncertain have by now largely decided against the death penalty, and that the public has become increasingly polarized about the issue. Apart from this shift away from "fence sitting," the trend in unfavorable attitudes against the death penalty is approximately the reverse of the favorable attitudes. Unfavorable attitudes were highly prevalent in the late 1950s and 1960s, but began to fall in the 1970s and reached a nadir in the 1980s and 1990s. However, over the past ten years unfavorable attitudes have increased steadily.

The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) has been able to shed more light on public attitudes by asking the public using the Gallup Poll whether they supported the death penalty or life in prison without parole. The DPIC asked, "Which is the better penalty for murder, death or life imprisonment?" According to survey results, over the years since 1985, "support for the sentence of 'Life without Parole' as an alternative to the death penalty has steadily increased, to the point where now the country is evenly split on capital punishment. In 1994, only thirty-two percent favored Life, with 50% favoring death. In 2004, support for life without parole had grown to forty-six percent."

Furthermore, the DPIC attempts to show that the basic rationale for the death penalty, that it can deter criminals from murdering people, lacks credibility among the public. Once again the DPIC points to a declining trend in public support: "In less than 20 years, public opinion regarding the deterrent effect of the death penalty—long the backbone of its support—has reversed itself. In 1986, 61% believed the punishment to be an effective deterrent. In 2004, 62% believed that the death penalty did not deter crime." Adding victim restitution to the mix further erodes public support for the death penalty in the context of the Gallup Poll. If public support for the death penalty is compared to support for life imprisonment combined with restitution to the victim's family, support for the latter alternative rises to forty-four percent versus forty-one percent for the death penalty.

Although the DPIC has demonstrated that there is considerable "softness" in the public's support for capital punishment, and that it is possible in a survey context to reduce public support for the death penalty below its support for some hypothetical alternative, the contention that death penalty support can be reduced much below fifty percent seems to be a long shot. Currently, there appears to be a cultural norm in the U.S. of about sixty percent approval of the death penalty, and attitudes favoring executions fluctuate within ten to fifteen percentage points of this sixty-percent level. Fluctuations appear to depend on sociodemographic trends, such as the rise and maturation of the baby boomer generation or the intensity of the war on drugs. Economic cycles may play a role in which economic upturns are correlated with more forgiving attitudes toward criminals. Currently, the U.S. is experiencing a drop in pro-execution attitudes in the midst of a long-term increase (albeit with some hiccups). This could be due to decreasing crime rates in times of prosperity, which reduce the numbers of people affected by crime. The reduction in the number of crime victims could lead to more "forgiving" attitudes toward criminals.

The American Psychological Association has weighed in on the question of why people have certain moral attitudes, saying that human genetics may play a role. According to a 2001 APA press release, "Attitudes are learned, but new research [studies of twins raised together and apart] shows that differences between people in many attitudes are also partly attributable to genetic factors. These include attitudes as diverse as whether one likes roller coaster rides to controversial social issues such as attitudes toward abortion and the death penalty for murder." A biological component to such attitudes—in the context of American culture—could help explain their relative stability over time. According to a 2004 Harris Poll, "Support for the death penalty remains very strong in the United States, even though almost everyone believes that innocent people are sometimes convicted of murder, and only a minority believes it is a deterrent." In other words, support for executing killers seems to depend on a "gut feeling" that is not well connected to evidence about the effectiveness or accuracy of capital punishment.

Attitudes toward the death penalty appear to be more related to a person's emotional reaction when faced with the reality that one person has taken another person's life. There is a yawning gulf between the response of one observer who feels outrage that a murderer could have deprived another of existence and the response of another observer who seeks explanations that could be applied to preventing future murders. Thus, the death penalty advocate views murder as the ultimate transgression against the sacredness of human life, for which the only fit punishment is to suffer the same fate. The death penalty opponent might consider the victim as a victim of human ignorance and looks to a more enlightened future by applying "lessons learned" without "sinking to the level of the murderer" by executing him or her.

Viewed in this way, the pro-death penalty perspective appears to devalue the criminal, while the anti-death penalty perspective appears to devalue the victim. It is no wonder that biological or behavioral genetics explanations have been advanced to explain why people have trouble bridging such a gulf. Different people appear predisposed by temperament to identify with the victim or the offender. Reason can make only marginal differences, while major cultural and socioeconomic trends can make larger, but still non-decisive, shifts in attitudes toward this fundamental question of life and death.


Web sites

American Psychological Association. "Study With Twins Finds Differences In Certain Attitudes Partly Due To Genetic Factors." 〈∼mkearl/death-5.html〉 (accessed February 10, 2006).

Death Penalty Information Center. "Public Opinion About the Death Penalty." 〈〉 (accessed February 10, 2006).

Harris Interactive. "More Than Two-Thirds of Americans Continue to Support the Death Penalty." 〈〉 (accessed February 10, 2006).

Trinity University. "Moral Debates of Our Times." 〈∼mkearl/death-5.html〉 (accessed February 10, 2006).

University of Alaska Anchorage. Justice Center. "Death Penalty Statistics." 〈〉 (accessed February 10, 2006).

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Attitudes Toward the Death Penalty for Persons Convicted of Murder

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