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October 14, 2007

Persistent strong public support for the death penalty

Pr071012ci In my recent post explaining my agnosticism regarding the death penalty (which generated a fantastic comment thread), I noted that broad public support for the death penalty was one reason have a hard time being categorically opposed to this punishment.  Coincidentally, this weekend the Gallup Poll released its annual survey on public support for the death penalty and it "shows no diminution in Americans' strong support for the death penalty in cases of murder."   Specifically:

The Oct. 4-7 poll indicates that 69% of Americans respond "yes" when asked this question: "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" This level of support for the death penalty is generally in line with the level of support that Gallup has measured in 13 polls featuring this question since 1999.

This post at Crime & Consequences talks about the Gallup results and other polling questions about the death penalty.

The Gallup press release about its findings has lots of interesting particulars.  I found especially interesting the fact that though "support for the death penalty varies some within different subgroups of the American population," this variations was not nearly "as much as might be expected."

October 14, 2007 at 10:28 AM | Permalink


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» Gallup Poll Suggests Continuing Strong Support For the Death Penalty in U.S.: from The Volokh Conspiracy
Gallup's latest poll on American support for the death penalty has some very interesting results.When asked, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of ... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 15, 2007 1:00:54 PM


Hopefully, even opponents of the death penalty can acknowledge the broad, persistent support of the death penalty in a country based upon democratic principles.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 14, 2007 10:40:26 AM

Doug, of particular interest to me is the results showing 55% of nonwhites support the death penalty and 62% percent of females, compared to 76 % of males. What I am intrigued about is the combination of blacks and females. In the trial I am doing now, 86% of all black females oppposed the death penalty, which I believe unconstitutionally culled the jury of a fair cross section of the defendant's peers. I realize the Gallup poll says the number of blacks polled was small but the other poll referred to says black support for death is 30 % less than white.

The fair cross section component of the Sixth amendment does not apply to sentencing, just determination of guilt innocence. The conclusion I bring from this is that we must have two juries in death penalty cases. The first determines guilt innocence and death views are irrelevant, to give respect to the Sixth amendment. The second jury is selected, and culled, in order to decide punishment.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Oct 14, 2007 10:53:49 AM

Steve - Yes and No - I beg the right to sit on the fence!
Actually, I have a hard time believing the poll has any validity at all since I have no information about who the respondents were or where they live. Is the response of a person who lives in a state that has one or no persons actually executed in a year comparable to the response of a person who lives in Texas I wonder - when assessing the national stance? In reality the death penalty touches few people in their lives and therefore they are commenting on what for them is an abstract idea. Of course people want to feel safe, and the death penalty sounds a great idea. If they appreciated how infrequently it is actually used in comparison with the number of murders actually committed or even prosecuted, they might wonder what the hell it is all about. The geographical and social disparity within the US in the practice of the death penalty (for real) is one of the telling and compelling reasons for its abolition. In short, the poll, in my view, has neither intrinsic merit nor valid role in the debate. To base a personal stance on its result even less so. Woops ... I just fell off the fence.

Posted by: peter | Oct 14, 2007 11:06:52 AM

I agree with Peter's comments that polls are ephemeral at best. All I know is that when I was selecting a jury two months ago, seven out of eight black females were disqualified for cause from sitting on the trial of a black def because of their opposition to the death penalty. I don't need a poll to tell me something is going on.

Posted by: bruce cunningham | Oct 14, 2007 11:45:19 AM

I would stand corrected on my previous posting of poll results if not for the (intentional?) failure of Gallop to ask about the death penalty vs. LWOP, even though they do mention that previous division.

But is there an underlying (offense?) issue here?

The News Media's Influence on Criminal Justice Policy: How Market-Driven News Promotes Punitiveness

"This Article explores local and national television's treatment of crime, where the extent and style of news stories about crime are being adjusted to meet perceived viewer demand and advertising strategies, which frequently emphasize particular demographic groups with a taste for violence. Newspapers also reflect a market-driven reshaping of style and content, resulting in a continuing emphasis on crime stories as a cost-effective means to grab readers' attention. This has all occurred despite more than a decade of sharply falling crime rates."

The court of public opinion would have to consider if this media offense does not categorically qualify as a predicate offense under a federal propaganda statute (were there one), or still may qualify under a modified categorical analysis.

This attempt at humor is another way of saying, "I think the phrase "with a taste for violence" goes to the heart of the "brutalization effect."

Posted by: George | Oct 14, 2007 12:03:27 PM

Peter: I'm not aware of any sampling biases in the poll, which is what you're hinting at. I think we can take confidence in the results given the repeated support for the death penalty over multiple years and multiple polls.

This is what bothers me about the DP debate: No one on either side is willing to fess-up to facts that disagree with their position. I think it's unquestionable that the public supports the death penalty, just as I think it's unquestionable that we'll never know whether the DP is a deterrent b/c of the numerous confounding variables at play.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 14, 2007 1:43:54 PM

I am less concerned at bias (though not convinced by the validity of the potential sample constitution), than I am of the validity of expressed opinion about a subject so emotive yet also so remote from the lives of those questioned. Not everything in this world is best judged by popular vote. As with opinion polls generally, the pollsters often get it wrong. When life and death is at stake I can see no excuse for the gamble. Sometimes we have to turn to subject specialists for appropriate advice.

Posted by: peter | Oct 14, 2007 2:31:23 PM

Invalid question:

It's not a valid query unless you ask if they support the death penalty as actually administered. While the question makes it sound as though EVERY murderer gets the death penalty, that is false. That skews support because of the values we know are at play in sentencing decisions. The question implies that the death penalty fulfills a 1-1, eye for an eye retributivist sentencing goal, when really only a small number of murderers face the death penalty.

I wonder what the answer would be if Gallup asked, "Do you support the death penalty if it only applies to less than 2% of murderers, most of them in Texas?"

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 14, 2007 2:46:08 PM

I don't understand what public opinion has to do with one's own personal opinion on whether the death penalty should exist. Is there an argument that because 69% of Americans support the death penalty in the abstract, that the other 31%--for that reason alone--should drop their opposition and also support it? If not, why should it influence your own view?

I understand the relevance of such a poll in attempting to justify politicians' votes supportive of the death penalty or explaining why it exists (although explaining why public opinion is the way it is is another issue entirely), but it should have no place whatsoever in the formation of one's own view. Where is the value in abdicating one's personal ethical/moral views to others?

Posted by: DK | Oct 14, 2007 3:41:44 PM

peter, your response to Steve spotlights concerns I have about political philosophies that seem to be lurking behind most abolitionists. You suggest that "When life and death is at stake ... we have to turn to subject specialists for appropriate advice." Does this principle apply to other life/death public policy issues --- e.g., speed limits, health care costs, airline regulation, terrorism policies?

The Bush Administration can readily say that, when it comes to whether we should use torture to prevent a terrorist attack, we cannot trust public opinion and instead must rely on military subject specialists to deal with these matters of life and death. Unless you devise a sound justification for when exactly to ignore public opinion, I worry much more about the benevolent despotism of so-called "subject specialists" than I do about the good judgment of the American citizenry.

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 14, 2007 3:42:57 PM

I agree, Grits. Gallup's traditional question is invalid because it can be interpreted as asking the respondent to specify a single punishment for all murderers. George's favorite question is even worse in that regard. (If I sat down and intentionally tried to draft a question as skewed as possible, I couldn't do much better than that one.) Hence, these questions understate actual support for the death penalty. If the choice were really constrained to a single punishment for all murderers, I would choose LWOP myself.

Fortunately, since 2001, Gallup has asked a better question. "In your opinion, is the death penalty imposed -- [ROTATED: too often, about the right amount, or not often enough]?"

Three-quarters of the people either support the death penalty in its present extent or want it used more often.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 14, 2007 3:47:01 PM

It was of course intentionally skewed, but the linked study supports the question as a valid factor in the debate. After all, if the public is bombarded by crime stories and constantly in fear for their lives, despite a drastic drop in the crime rate, they will more likely favor the death penalty.

Cable news, especially FoxNews, make this plain and I would argue that it is intentional.

The politics of fear

"It seems that one of the principal discoveries made by twenty-first century media pundits is that governments use fear to sustain their authority. The elevation of terrorism into the biggest threat to civilisation no doubt provides a lot of material for scripting the politics of fear - but the script is hardly original. It has been recycled in different forms for decades. In the post-Second World War era there was a continuous promotion of fear of the 'other side'. Fear of communism underpinned Cold War ideology, with periodic outbursts of fear of crime, fear of immigrants, and fear of nuclear war."

Posted by: George | Oct 14, 2007 5:15:17 PM

Doug B.
There you go again - assigning political motives (or philosophies as you describe it) to those who support a stance that would simply restore a clean slate on the question of the death penalty. Remember, the death penalty is an imposed law. It is an unusual, extreme form of punishment. Other societies survive very happily without it in this modern age.
Does everything have to be political?
I find your list of examples extraordinary and confusing. Speed limits are designed primarily to prevent accidents. Scientists can provide the information to suggest levels of risk in given environments. Legislators will decide, on the basis of scientific evidence and past experience, an acceptable level of risk and assign a speed limit accordingly. A popular vote is unnecessary and inappropriate because we empower legislators to make those decisions.
Terrorism policies are designed to nullify a threat. Security experts are able to assess the level of threat and suggest a range of effective counter-measures. Legislators have already assessed the legality of possible responses, or are able to assess the legality of newly proposed ones. When making decisions based on the reports/suggestions of security experts, it is incumbent on the executive to abide by existing legislation, or seek appropriate legal review. The legislators concerned will be advised by existing law, both national and international, in completing their review and advice. At no stage will a popular vote be required. Hopefully, when the popular vote does come into play, it will ensure that both legislators and executive are held to account for the decisions made. As regards adherence to the law, both should be in no doubt that transgressions will not be subject to the protection of privilege. Torture is a violation of national and international law. The abuse of powers by the Bush executive, or it's implicit acceptance of wrongdoing by others, would, in my view, represent transgressions of law that should be appropriately pursued and prosecuted.
If you can find anything I have said that offends your understanding of democracy I would be most surprised. Basically I am the most apolitical person I know. Judge me on my views and justification for them, not on suspicions of what might lurk behind them. They are my views and nothing more.

Posted by: peter | Oct 14, 2007 5:44:05 PM

peter, the core point in this "political/popular support" discussion is that all duly passed laws in all these settings --- including in the arena of the death penalty --- are the result of a process of representative democracy in which legislators (sensibly) take into account the views of both experts and public opinion. My examples were deisgned to highlight that, if saving life at all costs was our chief concern, experts would call for our speed limits to be much lower, for our public health care expenditures to be much higher, and these experts would give a lot of other unpopular advice that likely could not be sensibly followed in a democratic country.

Please stop assuming that I am trying to cast political aspersions. I'm not. My chief point about public/democratic support is that in 38 states and in Congress, duly elected legislatures have passed bills that provide for the death penalty for the worst murderers. And duly elected executive officials in all those have signed those bills into law. Against the backdrop of my agnosticism about the death penalty, this remarkably strong support for this controversial punishment keeps me "on the fence" because I have respect for the considered views of others (especially on matters that do not seem clear to me).

Perhaps we have a different understanding of "political." I do think that, within a democracy, most difficult issues of public policy are supposed to be "political" in terms of being subject to public debate and elected official being at least somewhat responsive to the results of this public debate.

That said, I am not at all against others trying to convince US voters to be against the death penalty. Nor am I against courts and others taking significant steps to minimize injustices in the application of the death penalty. As being "on the fence" highlights, I am not an ardent supporter of the death penalty. I just do not find most abolitionist arguments particularly convincing, especially since many actually argue for improving (rather than wholly eliminating) this form of punishment.

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 14, 2007 6:36:41 PM

I believe that the “death penalty’ as now administered is an oversimplified, coarse-grain response to a very complex social problem. For the most part, people do not deconstruct complex problems. Rather they bundle a whole set of provocations together and then respond to them as a whole, rather than doing the hard work of thinking about them individually in an organized way with the aide of guidelines for each, as judges and other thoughtful decision-makers should do. Polls are interesting but not a good way to sort out something this important and complex. Simple-minded decisions are usually biased in some respect or another, as the cognitive sciences have demonstrated over and over.

Posted by: Tom McGee | Oct 14, 2007 6:51:33 PM

Kent, do you think people have an accurate understanding of how and on whom the death penalty is currently used compared to other murderers, or what practical limits courts have placed on the practice? I doubt it sincerely. I get people not infrequently on Grits calling for the death penalty in property crimes!

Personally I don't give much credence to the 'popular sentiment' part of Doug's argument - the death penalty is right or wrong independently of what the general public, who knows more about Britney Spears than capital punishment, thinks on the topic.

Then, I've never been much of a "power to the people" guy, mainly because I know a lot of people. ;)

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 14, 2007 8:16:32 PM

Doug, what bothers me tremendously about this thread is the assumption upon which most commentors base their opinions, which is that the decision to impose life or death in a particular case was correctly arrived at after a trial between two equally prepared advocates who are operating on a level playing field. I, for one defense lawyer, will lay no claim to the level of infallibility which I think most are assuming. As I said before, we are "mere mortals" who put their pants on one leg at a time like anyone else.

thank you for the stimulating discussion.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Oct 14, 2007 9:31:03 PM

I agree that power to the people has real limitations, when it comes to making public policy. Thats why we have legislators. Look at the mess that the initive process has made in California and other places. The three strikes law is an example.

Posted by: Tom McGee | Oct 14, 2007 9:51:06 PM

Doug B.
A worthy and thought-provoking debate for all concerned, whether participant or not I suspect. I hope reference to it will be widely circulated and others stimulated to test their beliefs and opinions on this tremendously important topic, similarly.
I will leave it here with a final thought on your surprise or discomfort that those of us who speak for abolition also appear to support positive reforms of the existing process. Many commentators have experience of this issue through association with those who find themselves on death row, under threat of execution. That may come from professional involvement or it may come from personal involvement. The lives of those people, whether innocent or guilty, have been destroyed. The nature of death row institutions ensures that while they survive, they do so in the most degrading and punitive circumstances. It is beholden, in the name of humanity, for those of us that recognize that concept, and the fallibilities and abuses of the systems that have resulted in that condition, to do all in our power to mitigate it. A crumb of comfort is not to be ignored. Please excuse me posting this final comment on both relevant threads, and again, thanks for the opportunity.

Posted by: peter | Oct 15, 2007 3:40:06 AM

Grits, I know a lot of people, too, and I certainly don't think democracy is perfect. It's quite messy. However, I tend to agree with Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.

Government by platonic guardians in black robes is one of the others. As a variation on your statement, I'm not much of a power to the judges guy, because I've seen the work product of a lot of judges.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 15, 2007 12:04:12 PM

Kent, like this?


Posted by: federalist | Oct 15, 2007 1:18:00 PM

For those who think that the public should determine whether to have the death penalty, what do you think about death qualification for juries? Surely the view of a jury of one's peers should determine whether an individual should be put to death rather than a public opinion poll. Yet the significant minority (and majority in some jurisdictions) of the public who oppose the death penalty are disqualified from serving on juries -- despite the fact that it is perfectly legal to refuse to vote for death for any reason. This, to me, is the biggest travesty in death penalty jurisprudence.

Posted by: AF | Oct 15, 2007 1:34:22 PM

Democratic support for a peculiar institution like the death penalty is in conflict with certain self evident truths. We are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights--life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Our Republic is predicated on the principle that majoritarian will does not trump fundamental rights.

The term "Popular Sovereignty" comes to mind. Steven Douglas dreamt this up in response to abolitionists' opposition to extension of slavery in the newly created western states. Voting to establish a peculiar institution (slavery or state authored murder)which demolishes an inalienable right is not appropriate in this Republic. If slavery had been an up or down proposition on the ballot in 1860 the slavers would have won.

The majority of the American people would not favor trials, hearings, or lawyers for the people locked up in Guantanomo Bay. The majority of the American people: 1) would impose Christian prayer in public schools; 2) could not point out the location of Iraq on a map or globe; 3) are aware that Brittany just lost custody of her two kids; 4) believe that Abraham Lincoln was our fourth President; and, 5) voted for George Bush.

Posted by: M. P. Bastian | Oct 16, 2007 7:15:55 AM

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