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Public Opinion Supports Death Penalty

by Mark Gillespie


Seven out of ten Americans support the death penalty for a person convicted of murder, even though many of those same people believe America's minorities and the poor are more likely to receive a death sentence.

In a Gallup Poll conducted on February 8 and 9, 71% of those polled favored capital punishment, while 22% opposed it and 7% had no opinion. However, when Gallup interviewers asked whether the penalty for murder should be execution or life in prison with no possibility of parole, support for capital punishment dropped. Fifty-six percent of those polled supported the death penalty in those circumstances, while 38% prefer the option of life imprisonment without parole.

Historically, support for capital punishment has been strong for over two decades. In 1978, a year after capital punishment resumed in the United States with the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah, 62% of Americans supported the death penalty. That support rose consistently through the 1980's before peaking in 1994, when 80% of Americans favored the death penalty in murder cases.

Critics of capital punishment contend it unfairly targets minorities and the poor, and the American public tends to agree. When asked whether a poor person is more likely than a person of average or above average income to receive the death penalty for the same crime, 65% of Americans agreed, compared to 32% who disagreed.

The spread narrows when Americans are asked whether blacks are more likely than whites to receive a death sentence for the same crime. Fifty percent believe a black person is more likely than a white to face the death penalty for the same crime, while 46% disagree.

Interestingly, the more muted support for the death penalty when life imprisonment is made a guaranteed option tends to hold when Americans are asked about specific situations. For example, in November of 1997, when Unabomber suspect Ted Kaczynski was on trial, only 51% of Americans believed he should be executed. He escaped the death penalty by agreeing to a plea bargain with the federal government that guaranteed him a life sentence without possibility of parole. After the 1997 conviction of Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh, 64% of Americans believed he should receive the death penalty, compared to 34% who favored a sentence of life in prison without parole. His accomplice in the Murrah Building bombing, Terry Nichols, drew lower numbers favoring execution – 52% supporting the death penalty, compared to 42% supporting a life sentence without parole.

Despite claims by capital punishment critics that America already executes more criminals than any other Western nation, only one in four Americans believes the death penalty is imposed too often. Sixty-four percent of those polled believe it is in fact not used often enough, while just 4% believe the current level of executions is about right.

Finally, it is perhaps not surprising to see that opposition to the death penalty among minorities is higher than among whites. Forty-one percent of non-whites say the death penalty is imposed too often, while only 22% of whites agree. Fifty-two percent of non-whites say capital punishment is not used often enough, while 66% of whites agree with that statement.

Survey Methods
The results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of adults, 18 years and older, conducted February 8-9 1999. For results based on the total samples of 1064, one can say with 97 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder? (Based on 543 national adult: margin of error plus or minus 5 percentage points)

  For Against No Opinion
99 Feb
71% 22% 7%

What do you think should be the penalty for murder—the death penalty, or life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole? (Based on 511 national adult: margin of error plus or minus 5 percentage points)

  Death Penalty Life Imprisonment No Opinion
99 Feb
56% 38% 6%

In your opinion, is the death penalty imposed too often today or not enough?

  Too Often Not Often Enough About the Right Amount No Opinion
99 Feb
25% 64% 4% 7%

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