Sixty-one percent of Americans approve of using the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, down from 64% last year. This is the lowest level of support since 1972, the year the Supreme Court voided all existing state death penalty laws in Furman v. Georgia.
Gallup first asked about use of the death penalty in murder cases in 1936. At that time, 59% of Americans supported it and 38% opposed it. Americans’ views on the death penalty have varied significantly over the 75 years since, including a period from the late 1950s to the early 1970s when less than a majority of Americans favored it. Support climbed to its highest levels from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, including the all-time high of 80% who favored the death penalty in 1994. Since then, support has gradually declined; this year’s measure of 61% marks a 19-percentage-point drop over the past 17 years, and a 3-point drop from last year’s measure.
The Oct. 6-9 poll was conducted shortly after the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, which generated widespread protests and extensive news coverage. This could help explain the slight drop in support for the death penalty this year. However, there have been high-profile executions in the news in previous years without concomitant drops in death penalty support, making it less clear that such events have a direct impact on attitudes.
There are a number of reasons for the decline in support.
The most profound is probably the discovery of DNA and other forensic evidence which may cast in doubt some jury verdicts. In other words, some convicted murderers may be put to death wrongly. Whereas, a sentence of life in prison without parole would allow the convicted felon time to appeal – a lifetime in fact.
There is also a sense of frustration with the legal process. It takes forever to execute someone in the United States – sometimes many decades.
Less Than Half Say Death Penalty Not Imposed Often Enough
This year, 40% of Americans say the death penalty is not imposed often enough, the lowest such percentage since May 2001, when Gallup first asked this question. Twenty-five percent say the death penalty is used too often, the highest such percentage yet that Gallup has measured. The rest (27%) say the death penalty is imposed about the right amount.
And, is the death penalty FAIRLY applied?
Fifty-two percent of Americans say the death penalty is applied fairly in this country, down from 58% last year, but similar to the 51% who felt this way in June 2000.
Almost three-quarters of Republicans and independents who lean Republican approve, compared with 46% of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic. Additionally, men, whites, and those living in the South and Midwest are among those most likely to support the death penalty. Americans younger than age 30 are less likely to support the death penalty than are those who are 30 and older.
So, what does this all mean?
There will be increasing pressure for some states to end the death penalty and changing punishment heinous criminal conduct to life in prison without parole. However, a clear majority of American voters favors the death penalty and a majority of states will resist those efforts and maintain the ultimate punishment for the foreseeable future.
A separate Gallup trend question, not asked this year, explicitly offers respondents the opportunity to choose between the death penalty and life imprisonment with no possibility of parole, and last year’s update found about half of Americans preferring the latter option. On the other hand, Gallup has found support for the use of the death penalty rising when Americans are asked about specific cases involving high-profile mass killings, such as the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh.