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October 13, 2011

Interesting new numbers in latest Gallup poll of death penalty public opinions

Zc0mmtsaguquydfhqdeteaThis new release from the folks at Gallup, which is headlined "In U.S., Support for Death Penalty Falls to 39-Year Low; Fifty-two percent say the death penalty is applied fairly," reports on the results of the latest public survey on the death penalty. Here are highlights:

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.

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....

Support for the death penalty is highly partisan in nature.  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.

October 13, 2011 at 08:16 AM | Permalink


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This annual Gallup poll has always interested me because the question being asked doesn't correctly reflect the current practice. Let me explain. It is rare that someone receives the death penalty for committing murder. The usual case is the defendant commits murder along with a felony such as rape or robbery. Thus, these annual polls are virtually worthless in assessing popular support (or lack thereof) for the death penalty.

Posted by: justice seeker | Oct 13, 2011 10:09:11 AM

The margin of error for this poll is plus or minus 4%, according to the press release. I ain't no mathematician, but doesn't that mean that possibly, support for the death penalty could have diminshed by 7%, or that it has possibly increased by 1%? Either way, when the result is within the margin of error then isn't the only reliable conclusion that support for the death penalty is about the same as it was last year?

Posted by: Red | Oct 13, 2011 12:04:51 PM

Texas man jailed 25 years for murder is exonerated

A Texas appeals court has formally exonerated a man set free last week after he spent nearly 25 years in prison for his wife’s 1986 killing, which DNA tests indicate another man committed.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday declared Michael Morton innocent of killing his wife, Christine, according to Paul Cates, a spokesman for the New York-based Innocence Project, which represented Morton in appealing his conviction. The ruling makes Morton eligible to receive $80,000 from the state for each year he was wrongfully imprisoned, about $2 million total.

Posted by: George | Oct 13, 2011 3:36:20 PM

Justice seeker, I would not call the poll worthless. Everyone with a particular interest in the death penalty has their own preferred way to phrase the poll question, but Gallup is not asking "do you prefer puppies or kittens" and using those answers to measure support for the death penalty.

Changing the form of the question would also destroy the greatest strength of this poll: that Gallup has been asking the question this way since the 1930's. Keeping the question the same gives us a measure of how support for the death penalty has changed over time. For example, it is quite odd that support for the death penalty in the 1930's was weaker than today but in the 1930's we executed four times as many people as today with a population maybe 1/3 that of today.

Red, whenever I ask a statistician or pollster about the margin of error they get quite equivocal, even more so than your comment. I think, to use concrete examples, that if a poll gives a result of 60% +/- 1.5%, then the same poll gives a result of 61% +/- 1.5% one week later, the pollster consensus is there is no change. But things get tricky because 60% +/- 1.5% is indistinguishable from 61% +/- 1.5%, and 61% +/- 1.5% is indistinguishable from 62% +/- 1.5%, but 60% and 62% are distinguishable. The safe reading of this (I think) is that there appears to be a general trend of support for the death penalty either declining or holding steady in the last few years, but the sample size of the poll is not large enough for finer distinctions.

Posted by: Paul | Oct 13, 2011 5:04:57 PM

I think the public strongly supports the policy that a person that has been convicted of first degree murder should die in prison. What they don't agree on is the circumstances of the death a) at a specified time before official witnesses or b) at an unspecified time with no official witnesses.

Posted by: John Neff | Oct 14, 2011 9:14:22 AM

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