Public Attitudes Toward Capital Punishment

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Like all statistics, those contained in public opinion polls should be viewed cautiously. The way a question is phrased can influence the respondents' answers. Many other factors may also influence a response in ways that are often difficult to determine. Respondents might never have thought of the issue until asked, or they might be giving the pollster the answer they think the pollster wants to hear. Organizations that survey opinions do not claim absolute accuracy. Their findings are approximate snapshots of the attitudes of the nation at a given time.

The surveys presented here have been selected from many polls taken on capital punishment. The Gallup Organization and Harris Interactive (formerly Louis Harris and Associates, Inc.), to name two such organizations, are well respected in their fields, and their surveys are accepted as representative of public opinions. A typical, well-conducted survey claims accuracy to about plus or minus three points.


Lydia Saad of the Gallup Organization, in ''Americans Rate the Morality of 16 Social Issues'' (June 4, 2007,, reports on a May 2007 values and beliefs poll regarding Americans' views about various moral issues. Respondents were asked about sixteen particular issues deemed important to society. Saad notes that eight of the issues elicited consensus responses (i.e., a majority of people shared a similar opinion). As shown in Table 9.1, the death penalty was rated the most morally acceptable of the eight consensus issues. Two-thirds (66%) of those asked said that the death penalty is morally acceptable, whereas more than a quarter (27%) said that it is morally wrong. These percentages are consistent with those obtained in previous years. Saad indicates that annual polling conducted from 2001 through 2006 found that moral acceptance for the death penalty ranged from 63% to 71%, with the low value occurring in 2001 and the high value in 2006.

According to Saad, moral acceptance of the death penalty in the 2007 poll was ''fairly uniform'' across different age groups, genders, and political parties. Figure 9.1 provides a breakdown by self-described political philosophy. The morality of the death penalty was strongly supported by conservatives. Seventy-three percent of them deemed capital punishment morally acceptable, compared to 66% of moderates, and 54% of liberals.


According to Gallup poll results from December 1936, about three out of five (59%) respondents favored the death penalty at that time. (See Figure 9.2.) This was the first time the Gallup Organization polled Americans regarding their attitudes toward the death penalty for murder. For the next three decades support for capital punishment fluctuated, dropping to its lowest point in 1966 (42%). Starting in early 1972 support for capital punishment steadily increased, peaking at 80% in 1994. (See Figure 9.3.) Between 1999 and 2006 support hovered at nearly 70%. In October 2006 Gallup found that 67% of Americans favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

The lowest proportion of Americans in support of capital punishment for murder was 42% in 1966, a period of civil rights and antiVietnam War marches and the peace movement. (See Figure 9.2.) It was also the only time in the period of record that those who opposed capital punishment (47%) outnumbered those who favored it.

According to the article ''Death Penalty Poll Highlights'' (April 26, 2007,, an Associated Press/Ipsos poll conducted in February 2007, 69% of American respondents supported the death penalty for those convicted of

Public opinion on the morality of social issues with a consensus opinion, May 2007
Morally acceptableMorally wrong
The death penalty6627
Medical research using stem cells obtained
from human embryos
Cloning humans1186
Polygamy, when one husband has more
than one wife at the same time
Married men and women having an affair691

murder. In 2006 the Washington Post and ABC News (June 26, 2006, reported on a poll regarding the death penalty. The results showed that capital punishment was favored by 65% of Americans for convicted murderers. Thirty-two percent were opposed. According to the report Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 19872007 (March 22, 2007,, a poll performed between December 2006 and January 2007 for the Pew Research Center by Princeton Survey Research Associates, 64% of Americans supported capital punishment for those convicted of murder. Comparison to results from previous years shows that support has gradually declined since 1996, when it was at 78%.

The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) of California conducts annual surveys on the opinions of college freshmen around the country. The latest results are published in The American Freshman: Forty Year Trends (2007, HERI included a question about the death penalty in surveys conducted between 1969 and 1971 and between 1978 and 2006. The poll participants were asked to express their level of support for abolishing the death penalty. In 2006 more than one-third (34.5%) of college freshmen surveyed indicated they ''agree strongly'' or ''agree somewhat'' that the death penalty should be abolished. Support for abolishment was slightly stronger among women (37.6%) than among men (30.7%). Historically, the greatest discontent with capital punishment was reported between 1969 and 1971, when an average of 58% of respondents favored its abolishment. In 1978 support for abolishment was dramatically lower at 33.6%. It increased through the end of the decade and then

began to decline, reaching a low of 21.2% in 1994. Annual surveys conducted since that year have recorded steadily growing support for abolishment by college freshmen. A summarization of the polling data is provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (

Demographic Differences

Some polling organizations provide detailed information on the demographic characteristics of poll respondents. According to the Pew Research Center, in Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes, levels of support for the death penalty differed by gender, race, and political affiliation. Sixty-eight percent of men expressed support, compared to 60% of women. White respondents favored the death penalty much more than people of other races. Sixty-nine percent of whites expressed support for capital punishment, compared to 45% of Hispanics and 44% of African-Americans. More than three-fourths (78%) of Republicans and slightly over half (56%) of Democrats supported the death penalty.

Gallup conducted its annual minority rights and relations survey in June 2007. As shown in Figure 9.4, support for the death penalty for convicted murderers was voiced by 70% of whites, but only 40% of African-Americans. In fact, a majority (56%) of African-Americans were opposed to capital punishment. The difference of opinion on this issue is evident in Gallup polls dating back to 1972. (See Figure 9.5.) Historically, African-American respondents have expressed less support for the death penalty than have white respondents.

An OctoberDecember 2005 Gallup poll revealed differences between genders and age groups regarding the death penalty. (See Figure 9.6.) Seventy percent of male respondents supported capital punishment, compared to 59% of female respondents. Support by age group differed slightly. Respondents aged fifty to fifty-four were most likely to favor the death penalty. Sixty-nine percent of them expressed support for capital punishment, compared to 60% of young people aged eighteen to twenty-nine. Support among other age groups was between these two values. Figure 9.7 summarizes Gallup polling results from 2003 to 2005 for states with and without the death penalty at the time. More than two-thirds (68%) of respondents in the thirty-eight death penalty states favored capital punishment, whereas 28% were opposed to it. In the ten states without a death penalty on the books (Alaska and Hawaii were not included in this poll), only 58% of respondents supported capital punishment and 37% were opposed to it.

In Religion and Politics: Contention and Consensus (July 24, 2003,, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press examines polling data regarding various social issues. The results indicate a deep divide by race over the death penalty. Capital punishment was supported by 69% of whites, 50% of Hispanics, and only 39% of African-Americans. There were also distinct differences between religious persuasions among white respondents. The death penalty was supported by 76% of Evangelicals, compared to 70% of mainline Protestants and 69% of Catholics. Only 60% of white people classifying themselves as secular (nonreligious) favored capital punishment.

Kathleen Maguire and Ann L. Pastore report in the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2003 (2004, that in 2003 men (70%) were more likely than women (58%) to support capital punishment. Whites (67%) tended to favor the

death penalty more than African-Americans (39%) or non-whites (52%). Republicans (84%) were more likely than Independents (58%) and Democrats (51%) to believe in the death penalty. Maguire and Pastore find that the percentage of those supporting the death penalty varied with income. More than seven out of ten (72%) of people earning $30,000 to $49,999 favored the death penalty in 2003. Those with incomes under $20,000 demonstrated the least support (52%) for the death penalty. Views about the death penalty also varied somewhat with education levels, with those having a postgraduate degree (47%) favoring it the least. Regionally, people living in the South (71%) and West (69%) were more likely to favor the death penalty, compared to those in the Midwest (61%) and East (53%).

Recent State Polls

Mark DiCamillo and Mervin Field (March 3, 2006, of the Field Research Corporation, which conducts polls in the state of California, report the results of a February 2006 poll regarding Californians' opinions about the death penalty. The pollsters found that 63% of respondents agreed that ''the death sentence should be kept as a punishment for serious crimes.'' Another 32% favored ''doing away with the death sentence.'' Angus Reid Global Monitor, in ''Most in Kansas Support the Death Penalty'' (February 21, 2007, February 21, 2007,, reports that in 2007, 69% of state residents supported the death penalty, compared to 27% who opposed it.


The most recent nationwide Gallup poll (October 24, 2006, in which respondents were asked to give their reasons for supporting or opposing the death penalty was conducted in May 2003. At that time, 64% of respondents

believed that the death penalty was the appropriate punishment for murder. These capital punishment supporters were asked why they favor the death penalty for convicted murderers. Most of the responses reflect a philosophical, moral, or religious basis of reasoning. Thirty-seven percent gave their reason as ''an eye for an eye/they took a life/fits the crime.'' (See Table 9.2.) Another 13% said ''they deserve it,'' whereas 5% cited biblical beliefs. Four percent stated that the death penalty will ''serve justice,'' and 3% it is a ''fair punishment.'' Together, these morality-based responses comprise 62% of all responses.

A minority of people who supported capital punishment in 2003 did so because of practical considerations. Eleven percent said the death penalty saves taxpayers' money. Another 11% thought that putting a murderer to death would set an example so that others would not commit similar crimes. Seven percent responded that the death penalty prevents murderers from killing again. Two percent each said that capital punishment helps the victims' families or believed that prisoners could not be rehabilitated. One percent each noted that prisoners given life sentences do not always spend life in prison or said that capital punishment relieves prison overcrowding. In total, just over a third (35%) of the reasons given for supporting the death penalty appear to be based on issues of practicality, rather than on morality.

Interestingly enough, death penalty opponents also rely heavily on moral reasoning to support their position. In 2003 just 32% of respondents in the Gallup poll expressed opposition to capital punishment. Nearly half (46%) said that it is ''wrong to take a life.'' (See Table 9.3.) A quarter feared that some innocent suspects may be ''wrongly convicted.'' Another 13% cited their religious beliefs or noted that ''punishment should be left to God.'' Five percent said that murderers ''need to pay/suffer longer/think about their crime'' (presumably by serving long prison sentences). By contrast, 5% said that there is a possibility of rehabilitation. Four percent opposed the death penalty because of ''unfair application.''

Obviously, moral values and ideas about justice and fairness have a tremendous influence on American attitudes about capital punishment.


Table 9.4 lists the states offering life without parole as a sentencing option in 2007. A sentence of life without parole is an option in all states except New Mexico (a death penalty state) and Alaska (a state without the death penalty).

Gary Langer, in Capital Punishment, 30 Years On: Support, but Ambivalence as Well (July 1, 2006,, analyses a June 2006 Washington Post/ABC News poll. Langer notes that 50% of respondents preferred a death penalty sentence versus 46% for life in prison with no chance of parole for people convicted of murder.

Gallup also finds that popular support for the death penalty decreases when poll participants are asked to choose between capital punishment and life imprisonment with ''absolutely no possibility of parole'' as the ''better penalty'' for murder. In a May 2006 poll 48% of respondents selected life imprisonment without parole, compared to 47% for the death penalty. As Table 9.5 shows, 2006 was the first time that life imprisonment without parole was preferred over capital punishment as the sentence for murder. For comparison, in 1985, 56% of poll respondents favored the death penalty versus only 34% for life imprisonment without parole.

Recent State Polls

The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute (February 1, 2007, leaseID=1010) conducted a poll in January 2007 regarding Ohio residents' opinions about the death penalty. The results revealed that 48% of respondents preferred the death penalty for convicted murders, compared to 38% who favored a sentence of life in prison without parole. That same month the article ''Death Penalty, Decline in Polls Reflects Less Faith in System'' (Lexington Herald Leader, January 3, 2007) reported the results of a poll by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center, which

showed that only 30% of state residents favored the death penalty over a prison term for the crime of aggravated murder. More than a third (36%) of respondents preferred life in prison with no chance of parole. The remainder supported other prison sentencing options.

A September 2006 poll by the New York Times and CBS News ( found that, given a choice of sentences, only 28% of New Yorkers supported the death penalty for people convicted of murder. Forty-eight percent felt that life without parole was the appropriate sentence, whereas 9% favored a ''long'' prison sentence with a chance of parole. Eleven percent of the respondents said that the sentence should depend on the circumstances.


The May 2006 Gallup poll asked participants if the death penalty is imposed too often, about the right amount, or not often enough. Just over one-fifth (21%) of respondents believed the death penalty was imposed too often. (See Figure 9.8.) A quarter felt it was imposed about the right amount. A majority (51%) said that it was not imposed enough. Comparison to results obtained in 2001 shows that the percentage of respondents believing that the death penalty is not imposed often enough increased from 38% in 2001 to 51% in 2006.


The May 2006 Gallup poll questioned people about the fairness of the death penalty. As shown in Table 9.6, 60% of respondents believed that the death penalty is applied fairly in this country, compared to 35% who felt it is applied unfairly. The percentage of people expressing confidence in the fairness of the death penalty has hovered above 50% since the question was first asked in a 2000 poll.


The May 2006 Gallup poll asked participants if they believed that an innocent person had been executed within the past five years. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of those asked

Poll respondents' reasons for supporting the death penalty, May 2003
WHY DO YOU FAVOR THE DEATH PENALTY FOR PERSONS CONVICTED OF MURDER? [OPEN-ENDED] (Based on 715 who favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder)
May 1921,
An eye for an eye/they took a life/fits the crime37
They deserve it13
Save taxpayers money/cost associated with prison11
Deterrent for potential crimes/set an example11
They will repeat crime/keep them from repeating it7
Biblical reasons5
Depends on the type of crime they commit4
Serve justice4
Fair punishment3
If there's no doubt the person committed the crime3
Would help/benefit families of victims2
Support/believe in death penalty2
Don't believe they can be rehabilitated2
Life sentences don't always mean life in prison1
Relieves prison overcrowding1
No opinion2
Poll respondents' reasons for opposing the death penalty, May 2003
WHY DO YOU OPPOSE THE DEATH PENALTY FOR PERSONS CONVICTED OF MURDER? [OPEN-ENDED] (Based on 277 who oppose death penalty for persons convicted of murder)
May 1921,
Wrong to take a life46
Persons may be wrongly convicted25
Punishment should be left to God/religious belief13
Need to pay/suffer longer/think about their crime5
Possibility of rehabilitation5
Depends on the circumstances4
Unfair application of death penalty4
Does not deter people from committing murder4
No opinion4
States offering life without parole sentence, 2007
Death penalty states
offering life without parole*
(37/38 states)
Non-death penalty states
offering life without parole
(11/12 states)
Notes: The recent development of "three strikes laws in some states may make life without parole available for at least some offenders in those states. New Mexico does not have life without parole.
Alaska does not have life without parole.
ArkansasMississippiSouth CarolinaMaine
CaliforniaMissouriSouth DakotaMassachusetts
DelawareNevadaUtahNorth Dakota
FloridaNew HampshireVirginiaNorth Dakota
GeorgiaNew JerseyWashingtonRhode Island
IdahoNew YorkWyomingVermont
IllinoisNorth CarolinaplusWest Virginia
IndianaOhioFederal statuteWisconsin
KansasOklahomaMilitary statuteplus District of
Public opinion on preferred sentence for murder, selected years 19852006
The death
*Asked of a half sample.
2006 May 57*47485
2001 Feb 1921* 54 42-4
2000 Aug 29Sep 5* 49 47-4
2000 Feb 2021523711
1999 Feb 89*56386
1997 Aug 1213*612910
1993 Oct 1318592912
1992 Mar 30Apr 5503713
1991 Jun 1316533511
1986 Jan 1013553510
1985 Jan 1114563410
Public opinion on the fairness of the death penalty, June 2000 and May 2002May 2006
FairlyUnfairlyNo opinion
2006 May 81160354
2005 May 2561354
2004 May 2455396
2003 May 5760373
2002 May 6953407
2000 Jun 232551418

agreed that this had occurred. (See Figure 9.9.) More than a quarter (27%) of respondents thought that an innocent person had not been executed within the last five years.

In ''More Than Two-thirds of Americans Continue to Support the Death Penalty'' (January 7, 2004,, Humphrey Taylor of Harris Interactive notes that in December 2003 most Americans (95%) believed that, on average, for every one hundred people convicted of murder, approximately 11% were innocent. Women guessed that this occurred more often (estimated 13%) than men did (10%). African-Americans estimated that 23% of people convicted of murder were innocent, compared to estimates by Hispanics (16%) and whites (9%). Independents and those with a high school diploma or less were more likely to believe that a higher proportion of innocent people (13% and 13%, respectively) were convicted of murder, as opposed to Republicans and those with a four-year college degree (6% and 7%, respectively).

Though 95% of respondents indicated they believed that at least some of those charged with murder were innocent, the 11% error rate in executions did not seem to qualify as ''substantial.'' When asked if they would still support the death penalty if a ''substantial'' number of innocent people were convicted of murder, only four out of ten (39%) said they would still support the death penalty. Over half (51%) would oppose it under these conditions. Nevertheless, the 39% who continued to support the death penalty were a larger proportion compared to their counterparts in 2001 and a smaller proportion than those in 2000 (36% and 53%, respectively).


On January 31, 2000, the Illinois governor George Ryan (1934) declared a moratorium on executions in his

state. Jeffrey M. Jones of the Gallup Organization notes in ''Americans Closely Divided on Death Penalty Moratorium'' (April 11, 2001, that in March 2001, 53% of poll respondents said they favored a moratorium on the death penalty in states with capital punishment. Such a moratorium was opposed by 40%. Gary Langer reports in ''Poll: Public Ambivalent about Death Penalty'' (, May 2, 2001) that a poll conducted in April 2001 delivered similar results. This poll revealed that 51% of Americans favored a nationwide moratorium until a commission could study whether it was being administered fairly.

On January 11, 2003, Governor Ryan commuted 167 death sentences to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In ''Poll: Lock the Doors on Death Row'' (, January 24, 2003), Dalia Sussman notes that a January 2003 ABC News/Washington Post poll surveyed people in the thirty-eight death penalty states. The respondents were told that Governor Ryan's action was a result of his belief that too many mistakes occurred in capital cases and were then asked if they would support or oppose a similar blanket commutation by their governor. Fifty-eight percent indicated they would oppose such an action.

In 2004 a New York appellate court declared that the state's death penalty was unconstitutional because of a flaw in a state statute. In 2005 the New York State Assembly refused to pass a bill that would effectively fix the statute and reinstate the death penalty. By doing so, the assembly ushered in an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty in New York. The Siena Research Institute (March 8, 2005, polled registered voters in the state between February and March 2005, asking them if they wanted the death penalty to be reinstated. Some 46% of New Yorkers replied that they did not, whereas 42%saidtheydid.AMay2007poll( by the same organization found that New Yorkers favored reinstating the death penalty for people convicted of killing law enforcement officers by a margin of 52% to 42%.


Taylor notes that in December 2003 about four out of ten (41%) Americans believed that capital punishment deters (discourages) people from committing murders. However, 53% of Americans believed capital punishment does not have much effect. In 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated, 59% of Americans thought capital punishment was a deterrent, compared to 34% who thought it had little effect.

Just over one-third (34%) of respondents to the May 2006 Gallup poll thought that the death penalty acted as a deterrent to committing murder. (See Figure 9.10.) Nearly two-thirds (64%) maintained that the death penalty did not lower the murder rate. This represented a marked shift in sentiment from decades past. In January 1985 Gallup first asked Americans if they thought the death penalty lowered the murder rate, and two-thirds (62%) said it did, versus a mere one-third (31%) who responded that it did not.

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