PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup's annual Crime Survey finds that 64% of Americans continue to support the use of the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, while 29% oppose it -- continuing a trend that has shown little change over the last seven years.
Americans' views of the death penalty are particularly significant at this time, with several high-profile cases involving the death penalty in the news, including the imminent sentencing of convicted murderer Steven J. Hayes in Connecticut, a state in which only one person has been executed in the last 50 years.
Opponents of the death penalty continue to point out that DNA tests and other evidence have shown on numerous occasions that individuals sentenced to the death penalty were in fact innocent.
Despite the continuing controversy over the use of the death penalty, the attitudes of the average American on this issue have hardly changed in recent years. The current 64% support level is roughly equal to what Gallup has found through most of this decade.
This question about the death penalty in cases of murder is one of Gallup's oldest trends -- stretching back to 1936, when 59% of Americans supported the death penalty and 38% opposed it. Despite the similarity between today's attitudinal structure and what was found in 1936, there have been significant changes in the decades in between. At one point in 1994, 80% of Americans favored the death penalty, the all-time high on this measure. In 1966, 42% supported it, the all-time low.
Americans Split on Death Penalty vs. Life Imprisonment With No Possibility of Parole
Gallup from time to time asks a separate question on the death penalty that provides respondents with the explicit alternative of "life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole." Given this choice, the public this year splits roughly evenly, with 49% saying the death penalty is the better penalty for murder, while 46% opt for life imprisonment. This split is roughly the same as in 2006, when this question was last asked. However, prior to 2000, support generally tilted more strongly toward the death penalty option.
Half Say Death Penalty Not Imposed Often Enough
About half (49%) of Americans in this year's update say the death penalty is not imposed often enough and 26% say it is imposed "about the right amount," while 18% say it is imposed too often. These attitudes are little changed since 2002.
Similarly, 58% say the death penalty is applied fairly in this country today, while 36% say it is not, attitudes that have been stable in recent years.
These beliefs persist even though one of the main arguments against the death penalty is that it is applied unfairly -- that members of certain minority groups are more likely to receive the death penalty than others convicted of the same crimes, or that the arbitrary differences in trial procedures, judges, and jurisdictions can make a difference in who receives the death penalty and who doesn't.
Republicans, Men, Whites Express Most Support for Death Penalty
Men, whites, and Republicans are among the most likely to support the death penalty -- similar to previous years, although majorities of women, nonwhites, and Democrats also approve.
The use of the death penalty has been declining worldwide, with most of the known executions now carried out in five countries -- China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Anti-death penalty groups in the U.S. continue to fight the use of the death penalty, particularly when there are high-profile instances of its use, such as this year's execution in Virginia of Teresa Lewis, the first woman to be executed in that state in almost 100 years. Despite this, Gallup's latest update in October shows no diminution in the strong majority level of support for the death penalty in cases of murder within the U.S.
Support for the death penalty can vary, depending on what the alternatives are, and also in reference to the specific circumstances of individual cases. For example, support drops to about half of the population when Americans are given the opportunity to choose the explicit alternative of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. On the other hand, previous Gallup research has shown that in specific instances of highly visible, heinous crimes, support can rise to as high as 80%. That was the case when Gallup in 2001 asked Americans about the use of the death penalty for convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, whose actions resulted in the deaths of 168 people.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Oct. 7-10, 2010, with a random sample of 1,025 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2009 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
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.
View methodology, full question results, and trend data.
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