Gallup Poll Analysis, May 19, 2003

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  May 19, 2003 Support for the Death Penalty Remains High at 74% Slight majority prefers death penalty to life imprisonment as punishment for murder by Jeffrey M. Jones


GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup's latest update on the death penalty shows a continued high level of public support for the death penalty for those convicted of murder. When given a choice between the death penalty and life imprisonment as a punishment for murder, a slim majority also continues to favor the death penalty. Despite controversy over the death penalty that led to moratoriums in Illinois and Maryland, a growing percentage of the public believes the death penalty is applied fairly in the United States, and by a two-to-one margin, Americans say the death penalty is not imposed enough rather than imposed too often. Support for the death penalty is high despite the belief of most Americans that innocent people have been put to death in the past five years, although most consider this a rare occurrence.

The poll, conducted May 5-7, finds 74% of Americans in favor of and 24% opposed to the "death penalty for a person convicted of murder." Gallup has asked this basic death-penalty-support question since the 1930s. Support has been above 70% over the last two years, after having been in the mid-to-high 60% range in 2000-2001. The current number is the highest support level Gallup has obtained on this measure since May 1995, when 77% supported the death penalty. The highest support level was 80% in 1994, and the lowest was 42% in 1966.
 
  Are you in favor of the death penaltyfor a person convicted of murder?

When asked to indicate which is the appropriate punishment for murder -- the death penalty or "life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole"-- a slim majority, 53%, opts for the former, while 44% choose the life imprisonment option. These numbers have changed very little in past years, with about half of Americans, or slightly more, saying the death penalty is the appropriate punishment. An August 1997 poll found 61% of Americans favoring the death penalty and only 29% favoring life imprisonment.
  Death Penalty or Life Imprisonment for Convicted Murderers?

Americans' views on the appropriate punishment for murder are greatly influenced by their political orientation. Among ideological conservatives, 62% favor the death penalty and 36% life imprisonment. Among ideological liberals, it is nearly the reverse, with 37% favoring the death penalty and 60% life imprisonment. Moderates show a slight preference for the death penalty, by a 52% to 46% margin. Republicans are much more likely to prefer the death penalty than are independents or Democrats.

Perceptions about the death penalty also vary by educational attainment. By a 62% to 37% margin, postgraduates show a definite preference for life imprisonment. College graduates with no postgraduate education are essentially evenly divided, with 48% favoring the death penalty and 50% favoring life imprisonment. Those with some college (57% to 41%) and those with high school educations or less (56% to 40%) show a preference for the death penalty.

Increasing Percentage Says Death Penalty Applied Fairly in United States

In the last couple of years, there has been a growing belief that the death penalty is applied fairly in this country, despite news reports that some individuals were incorrectly given death sentences. Sixty percent now say the death penalty is applied fairly, while 37% disagree. In 2000, 51% said it was applied fairly, and 41% said it was not. During that year, Illinois became the first state to institute a moratorium on the death penalty, and the use of the death penalty in Texas under then-Governor George W. Bush was a major issue in the 2000 presidential election campaign.
  Is the Death Penalty Applied Fairly?
 

It is unclear why the view that the death penalty is applied fairly has become more widespread. While the death penalty controversy always seems to bubble up in the news periodically, it is not as prominent an issue as it was during the year 2000 or around the 2001 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Perhaps a reduced general news focus on the death penalty has caused more Americans to come to believe the system is working. Alternatively, the recent attention to mistakes may have caused Americans to believe that legal and public officials are now exercising more care in death penalty cases.

General support for the death penalty is also evident in the finding that nearly half of Americans, 48%, say the death penalty is not imposed often enough in this country. Twenty-six percent say it is imposed "about the right amount" of time, and 23% believe it is used too often. The latest figures are in line with last year's, though the percentage saying the death penalty is not imposed enough has risen from 38% in 2001.

A majority of conservatives, 54%, say the death penalty is not imposed often enough, while 28% say it is used the right amount of time and only 17% say it is used too often. This is in stark contrast to the opinions of liberals, who are more divided in their views. In fact, a plurality (35%) of liberals say the death penalty is imposed too often, 26% say the right amount of time, and 33% say it is not imposed enough. Again, the opinions of Republicans are similar to those of conservatives, and the opinions of Democrats are generally similar to those of liberals -- although more Democrats say the death penalty is not imposed often enough (40%) than say it is imposed too often (36%).

Most Believe Innocent People Have Been Executed

In recent years, there has been much controversy over the death penalty, including the imposition of moratoriums on executions in Illinois and Maryland. The debate has been fueled in part by the finding of new evidence that has exonerated some death-row prisoners of the crimes for which they received the death sentence. But Americans are aware of the risks involved in applying the death penalty: 73% of Americans believe an innocent person has been executed under the death penalty in the last five years. Most who say an innocent person has been executed believe this is very rare, as more than half think this happens no more than 5% of the time. The combined results of these two questions show 62% of all Americans believe this has happened no more than 5% of the time or not at all. About one in eight Americans believe that more than 20% of executions involve persons innocent of the crimes for which they were executed.

Just your best guess, about what percent of people who are executed under the death penalty are really innocent of the crime they were charged with?
 
  2003 May 5-7 Believe innocent executed^
% All Americans
% None * 22 1%-5% 55 44 6%-10% 13 9 11%-15% 3 2 16%-20% 5 4 21%-30% 7 5 31%-40% 4 3 41%-50% 4 3 More than 50% 2 2       No opinion 7 10       Mean 11.7% 8.8% Median 5.0% 2.0% * Less than 0.5%
^ Based on -- 746 -- adults who say someone has been executed under the death penalty in the past five years who was innocent of the crime

Liberals (84%) and Democrats (79%) are more likely than conservatives (64%) and Republicans (63%) to believe innocent people have been executed in the last five years. Democrats who believe innocent people have been executed tend to give higher estimates of the percentage who met this fate than do Republicans. Liberals and conservatives, however, give similar estimates.

Two in three Americans who favor the death penalty for murder believe that innocent people have been executed in the last five years. However, death penalty opponents (85%) are more likely to believe that innocent people have been put to death.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,005 adults, 18 years and older, conducted May 5-7, 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±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.

Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?

BASED ON -- 488 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A
    For
% Against
% No Opinion
% 2003 May 5-7 ^ 74 24 2 2002 Oct 14-17 70 25 5 2002 May 6-9 ^ 72 25 3 2001 Oct 11-14 68 26 6 2001 May 10-14 ^ 65 27 8 2001 Feb 19-21 ^ 67 25 8 2000 Aug 29-Sep 5 67 28 5 2000 Jun 23-25 66 26 8 2000 Feb 14-15 66 28 6 1999 Feb 8-9 71 22 7 1995 May 11-14 77 13 10 1994 Sep 6-7 80 16 4 1991 Jun 13-16 76 18 6 1988 Sep 25-Oct 1 79 16 5 1988 Sep 9-11 79 16 5 1986 Jan 10-13 70 22 8 1985 Jan 11-14 72 20 8 1985 Nov 11-18 75 17 8 1981 Jan 30-Feb 2 66 25 9 1978 Mar 3-6 62 27 11 1976 Apr 9-12 66 26 8 1972 Nov 10-13 57 32 11 1972 Mar 3-5 50 41 9 1971 Oct 29-Nov 2 49 40 11 1969 Jan 23-28 51 40 9 1967 Jun 2-7 54 38 8 1966 May 19-24 42 47 11 1965 Jan 7-12 45 43 12 1960 Mar 2-7 53 36 11 1957 Aug 29-Sep 4 47 34 18 1956 Mar 29-Apr 3 53 34 13 1953 Nov 1-5 68 25 7 1937 Dec 1-6 60 33 7 1936 Dec 2-7 59 38 3 ^ Based on half sample

If you could choose between the following two approaches, which do you think is the better penalty for murder -- [ROTATED: the death penalty (or) life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole]?
    The death penalty
% Life imprisonment
% Life imprisonment
% 2003 May 5-7 53 44 3 2002 May 6-9 ^ 52 43 5 2001 May 10-14 ^ 52 43 5 2001 Feb 19-21 ^ 54 42 4 2000 Aug 29-Sep 5 ^ 49 47 4 ^ Asked of a half sample.
 

Long-Term Trend

What do you think should be the penalty for murder -- the death penalty, or life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole?
 
    The death penalty
% Life imprisonment
% Life imprisonment
% 2000 Feb 20-21 52 37 11 1999 Feb 8-9 ^ 56 38 6 1997 Aug 12-13 ^ 61 29 10 1994 June 22 50 32 18 1993 Oct 13-18 59 29 12 1992 Mar 30-Apr 5 50 37 13 1991 Jun 13-16 53 35 11 1986 Jan 10-13 55 35 10 1985 Jan 11-14 56 34 10 ^ Asked of a half sample.

In your opinion, is the death penalty imposed -- [ROTATED: too often, about the right amount, or not often enough]?
  Too often
% About the right amount
% Not enough
% No opinion
% 2003 May 5-7 23 26 48 3 2002 May 6-9 22 24 47 7 2001 May 10-14 21 34 38 7

Generally speaking, do you believe the death penalty is applied fairly or unfairly in this country today?
  Fairly
% Unfairly
% No opinion
% 2003 May 5-7 60 37 3 2002 May 6-9 53 40 7 2000 Jun 23-25 51 41 8
 

How often do you think that a person has been executed under the death penalty who was, in fact, innocent of the crime he or she was charged with -- do you think this has happened in the past five years, or not?
  Yes, in past five years No, not No Opinion 2003 May 5-7 73% 22% 5%

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