The Death Penalty

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With controversial cases dominating headlines and a firm proponent of capital punishment in the White House, it's a good time to examine public opinion on the death penalty — how it varies according to demographics, and in response to current events.

Over the past few years, the nation has grappled with a number of moral and practical questions related to capital punishment. How should moral objections, such as those raised by Pope John Paul II, be reconciled with capital punishment advocacy? Should mentally retarded killers like Johnny Paul Penry of Texas be executed? Should people who commit crimes under majority age be subject to the death penalty? Should the execution of mass murderers like Timothy McVeigh be televised?

In an April 2001 poll of 1,003 adults conducted by International Communications Research for ABC News and The Washington Post, a majority of Americans (51 percent) supported a national moratorium on the death penalty while a commission studies its administration. Arguments in favor of and in opposition to capital punishment are myriad and complex. Analyzing the underlying issues and fluctuating responses to nationwide polls can help reveal what Americans are thinking as they continue to re-examine the issue.

A Timeline of Crime

According to a series of annual surveys by Harris Interactive on the death penalty, each polling 1,000 Americans nationwide, support for capital punishment increased steadily over the 30-year period prior to its peak in 1997, when three-fourths of Americans were in favor. Today, two-thirds of Americans still support the death penalty, though it seems recent social and scientific developments have led to a slight downturn: the development of DNA tests and a consequent series of overturned convictions; the increasing evidence of racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty, and high profile executions of killers deemed sympathetic by the American public (e.g. Christian convert Karla Faye Tucker in Texas).

The Harris polls also asked whether capital punishment is a deterrent to murder. Americans' belief that the death penalty serves as a disincentive is waning — falling to 42 percent in July 2001, from 59 percent in 1976. Surprisingly, the diminishing belief that capital punishment serves as a deterrent to crime is not accompanied by decreasing support for the death penalty. In fact, between 1976 and 1997, belief in capital punishment as a deterrent fell 10 percentage points, while support for the death penalty rose 8 points (uncertainty fell as well, from 8 percent to 3 percent of respondents). This indicates that lowering the murder rate may not be Americans' primary motive in supporting executions.

Responses to the two questions differed significantly by race. In 2001, 73 percent of whites support the death penalty, compared with 63 percent of Hispanics and only 46 percent of blacks. Blacks are also less likely to believe capital punishment acts as a deterrent: only 30 percent agree, compared with 45 percent of whites and 37 percent of Hispanics.


Between 1965 and 1997, support for the death penalty rose from 38 percent to 75 percent.

“Do you believe in capital punishment, that is, the death penalty, or are you opposed to it?�


Between 1976 and 1997, belief in the death penalty as a deterrent fell while support rose.

“Do you feel that executing people who commit murder deters others from committing murder, or do you think such executions don't have much effect?�

Source: Harris Interactive

The Issues at Hand

To understand some of the underlying factors affecting public opinion on the death penalty, International Communications Research conducted a nationwide poll of 1,003 adults in April 2001 for ABC News and The Washington Post.

Interestingly, though the belief that the death penalty acts as a deterrent has decreased, 72 percent of Americans agree the death penalty is fair because it “prevents killers from killing again� — more than any other supporting reason. It seems that in the age of Oprah, emotional healing is a laudable justification for capital punishment. Rated second as a justification for the death penalty's fairness is its provision of “satisfaction and closure� to the victim's loved ones. The third reason cited for the fairness of the death penalty is more biblical in nature: 56 percent of Americans believe in “an eye for an eye.�

While the administration of the death penalty has been charged with being racially biased, with Illinois governor, George Ryan, putting his state's death penalty on hold to study the issue, only 37 percent of Americans believe the punishment is unfair because it's applied unequally to blacks compared with whites. Of greater concern is unequal execution on a local level. Sixty-three percent say this inequity makes the death penalty unfair, although the most common doubt cited by opponents to the death penalty is the possibility that innocent people are sometimes executed: Over two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) share this belief.


Prevention is the leading reason for support; the possibility of executing the innocent lowers support.

“Regardless of your overall opinion on the death penalty, for each statement tell me if you agree with it strongly, agree somewhat, disagree somewhat or disagree strongly.�

The death penalty is fair because it prevents killers from killing again 72% 26%
The death penalty is fair because it gives satisfaction and closure to the families of murder victims 60% 37%
The death penalty is fair because it's an eye for an eye — the killer is killed 56% 41%
The death penalty is unfair because sometimes an innocent person is executed 68% 29%
The death penalty is unfair because it's applied differently from county to county and state to state 63% 30%
The death penalty is unfair because it's applied unequally to blacks compared with whites 37% 53%
Source: ABC News/The Washington Post
Note: Numbers do not sum to 100 percent because not all responses were included.

Assigning Guilt

Opinions about the death penalty vary depending on who commits the crime. According to a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of 900 registered voters nationwide conducted in June 2001, two-thirds of Americans oppose the execution of mentally retarded murderers. This number may actually skew in favor of the death penalty because of the way in which the question was worded: the inclusion of the term “premeditated murder� lends a specificity to the crime that might push death penalty support higher.

A series of Gallup polls in June 2001 surveyed more than 1,000 Americans nationwide to see how they reacted to the execution of infamous criminals. The polls found that support for the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh ran highest at 78 percent. A majority of Americans — 62 percent — also favored the federal execution of convicted murderer Juan Raul Garza, the second federal execution after an absence of three decades. As for Andrea Yates, who is accused of killing her five children, and has since plead insanity, Americans are much more evenly split. If she is found guilty, 44 percent polled in July 2001 by Gallup favor execution; 43 percent are opposed.


Most Americans are opposed to executing those who may not understand their crime.

“Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for a person convicted of premeditated murder, if that person is shown to be mentally retarded?�

Source: Fox News/Opinion Dynamics


  • With capital punishment in the news lately, American opinion on the death penalty seems particularly changeable in response to media coverage. Highly publicized executions, scandals and controversies surrounding the issue seem to have lessened support for the death penalty, bringing it significantly below its 30-year high only four years ago.
  • Most Americans don't seem to have a clear sense of the deterrent effects of the death penalty. On the one hand, belief that capital punishment acts as a deterrent has fallen significantly in recent years. On the other hand, deterrence is still cited as the strongest support for the death penalty's fundamental fairness.
  • When mental illness, mental retardation or youth is a factor, Americans seem more inclined toward clemency. And while most Americans support the death penalty, they seem troubled by the possibility of executing the innocent.
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