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The McVeigh Execution: American Public Opinion

The McVeigh Execution: American Public Opinion


PRINCETON, NJ -- Timothy McVeigh is scheduled to be executed Monday morning in Terre Haute, Indiana for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people. McVeigh would be the first federal prisoner executed since 1963, and the first federal prisoner ever to be killed by lethal injection. McVeigh's crime, and its investigation, prosecution and punishment have raised significant questions not only about this specific case, but also about the use of death penalty more generally. The following 10 questions and answers summarize the American public's opinions about these controversial issues, based on Gallup polling conducted over the past five months.

1. Do most Americans agree that McVeigh is guilty?

The majority of Americans generally believe McVeigh is guilty of the crime for which he will be put to death. Even after it was discovered that the FBI had failed to turn over all evidentiary documents to McVeigh's lawyers prior to his trial, 86% of Americans said they "were convinced McVeigh was guilty before and still are." Only 8% said they were previously convinced of his guilt but now had doubts because of the FBI files issue. A miniscule 2% said they had never been convinced that McVeigh was guilty.

2. Does it follow, then, that most Americans support McVeigh's execution?

Yes. According to the May 18-20 Gallup poll, 80% of Americans believe McVeigh should be executed, nearly identical to the 81% who felt this way a month earlier (and several weeks before the problem with the missing FBI files was revealed). Despite some slight variations in the exact percentage, this view appears to be the consensus of all major groups in society, including men, women, whites, nonwhites, "liberals" and "conservatives." Only 16% of Americans oppose the execution.

Support for McVeigh's execution comes mostly from people who more generally support the death penalty, but it also includes many Americans who otherwise oppose the death penalty. Of the 80% who favor the death penalty in McVeigh's case, 57% told Gallup that they favor the death penalty in general, while 23% generally oppose the death penalty.

3. Even though eight out of 10 Americans may support McVeigh's execution, where does the public stand on the use of the death penalty more generally?

Gallup has been asking Americans about their stance on the death penalty since the 1930s. The latest Gallup Poll update conducted in mid-May shows that 65% of Americans favor and 27% oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder. By a 52% to 43% margin, Americans say they support the death penalty when the explicit alternative of life imprisonment with absolutely no chance for parole is offered as part of the question wording.

Historically, support for the death penalty has varied considerably since Gallup first asked the question in 1937. In 1994, 80% of Americans said they were for the death penalty in cases of murder, the highest level ever recorded. The low point for approval of the death penalty came in 1966, when 42% said they were for it.

4. Despite the fact that the original judge and an appeals court turned down McVeigh's request for a delay in the execution, would Americans have been willing to wait for a more thorough review of the FBI files?

Yes, a slim majority of Americans (52%) said they believed McVeigh's execution should be delayed as long as necessary to properly review newly discovered FBI files concerning his case, while 47% said in a mid-May poll that the federal government should not postpone it any further.

5. The FBI certainly got credit for its original investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing case, but has now come under criticism for its failure to turn over all documents to the McVeigh defense team at the time of the trial. What do we know about the image of the FBI?

The FBI's image may have taken a hit in the eyes of the American public. While a slim majority of Americans (52%) believe the FBI's error was "an honest mistake," a sizeable number (42%) believe the FBI "knowingly withheld evidence in the McVeigh case." A majority of young Americans (53% of those aged 18-29) believe the FBI intentionally withheld the McVeigh evidence, while a majority of older Americans tend to give the agency the benefit of the doubt.

Additionally, only 38% of the public say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the FBI, compared to about six out of 10 who have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in both state and local police. Only the CIA fares worse in the eyes of the American public.

6. There are over 1,400 credentialed media representatives covering the execution in Terre Haute. Is the American public all that interested?

Americans are apparently not keenly interested in news surrounding the McVeigh execution. A Gallup poll conducted May 7-9 shows that just 19% of Americans said they were "very" or "somewhat interested" in watching live news coverage of McVeigh's execution. Fully two-thirds of the public said they were "not at all interested." To date, the public has paid only a moderate amount of attention to the McVeigh execution story. Fifty-nine percent of the public has followed the news about this story closely (14% very closely), which is only average compared with the attention paid to other news stories Gallup has measured over the past several years.

7. Do Americans think the execution of McVeigh will act as a deterrent to future acts of violence?

Americans are not optimistic that the death of McVeigh will act as a deterrent to future acts of violence, as only 30% think it will while 66% think it will not. Republicans (38%) are more likely than Democrats (24%) to think that future acts of violence will be deterred.

8. Do Americans think the execution of McVeigh will have the unintended consequence of making him a martyr?

The public is evenly divided over whether McVeigh will be seen as a martyr by some Americans, with 46% predicting he will and 46% predicting he will not.

9. The execution will be on closed-circuit television for victims' families. What do Americans think about this?

A small number of witnesses, including representatives of the victims' families, are allowed by Bureau of Prisons regulations to observe the execution in person. The American public is divided as to whether the McVeigh execution should be televised to larger groups of people. Forty-three percent think it should not be televised under any circumstances, 39% think it should be televised only for the victims' families (as it will be), and 17% think it should be on television for anyone to watch. These attitudes are related to one's opinion on the death penalty. More than half of death penalty opponents, 56%, oppose any broadcast of the execution, even when limited to family members of the victims, compared to only 35% of death penalty supporters who oppose such broadcasts. Just 10% of death penalty opponents think it should be shown to all Americans, while more than twice that number of death penalty supporters (22%) express this view.

10. Would Americans be interested in watching the execution live if it were televised nationally?

Americans would not seem to be overly interested in viewing the execution if it were televised. About half the public say they would not watch under any circumstances. When Americans are asked if they would watch if it were nationally televised, only 23% say they would, while 76% say they would not. However, an additional 21% say they would watch if one of their family members had been a victim in the bombing.

Far more women (63%) than men (48%) say they would not watch the execution. Additionally, older Americans are less inclined to want to watch the execution than are younger Americans. Nearly two out of three Americans aged 50 and older would not watch the execution, compared to just four out of 10 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. Americans who attend church weekly are much less likely to say they would watch McVeigh's execution than are those who attend church less often. Finally, 67% of death penalty opponents would not watch at all, compared to just 42% of death penalty supporters.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national samples of at least 1,000 adults, 18 years and older. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is 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.

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