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More Than 2/3 of Americans Continue to Support the Death Penalty, According to New Harris Poll Results

January 7, 2003, Harris Interactive


They support it even though only a minority thinks it is a deterrent and almost everyone believes that innocent people are sometimes convicted of murder


Support for the death penalty remains very strong in the United States, even though almost everyone believes that innocent people are sometimes convicted of murder, and only a minority believes it is a deterrent.

The last few years have seen many reports of people being released from prison after DNA tests showed they were innocent of murders or rapes for which they had been wrongly convicted many years before. The state of Illinois has imposed a moratorium on capital punishment. But a large 69% to 22% majority of the public still favors capital punishment and this majority is actually somewhat higher than it was in 2001 and in 2000 (when it had fallen to 64% to 25%).

This majority support for the death penalty holds even though almost everyone (95%) believes that innocent people are sometimes convicted of murder. On average they believe that 11% of all those convicted are innocent.

But the 2/3 of the public who support the death penalty seem to feel that that is an acceptable price to pay.

Certainly, there are some inconsistencies in public attitudes toward the death penalty, as there are on many issues. Only just over 1/3 of the public (37%) say, when asked, that they would still support the death penalty if they believed "that quite a substantial number of innocent people are convicted of murder" and about half (47%) say they would oppose it. But if 11% are wrongly convicted, is that not "substantial"?

Based on this and other polls, it seems very unlikely that a majority of Americans will actually oppose capital punishment any time soon, leaving the United States as the only western democracy which executes murderers.

These are some results of The Harris Poll(R) of 993 adults, surveyed by telephone by Harris Interactive(R) between December 10 and 16, 2003.

Other interesting results of this poll are:
Only 41% of all adults believe that the death penalty deters people from committing murder -- the smallest number from among all of The Harris Polls that asked this question in the last 27 years.
* A 36% plurality would still like to see an increase in the number of executions (versus 21% who favor a decrease, and 33% no change).
* African Americans believe that, on average, 23% of murder convictions are of innocent people, compared to 9% among whites and 16% among Hispanics.




TABLE 1
BELIEVE IN CAPITAL PUNISHMENT


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

Base: All Adults


December 1965 1969 1970 1973 1976 1983 1997 1999 2000 2001 2003
Believe in it 38 48 47 59 67 68 75 71 64 67 59
Opposed to it 47 38 42 31 25 27 22 21 25 26 22
Not sure/refused 15 14 11 10 8 5 3 8 11 7 9



TABLE 2
IS CAPITAL PUNISHMENT A DETERRENT?


"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?"

Base: All Adults


December 1976 1983 1997 1999 2000 2001 2003
Deters others 59 63 49 47 44 42 41
Not much effect 34 32 49 49 50 52 53
Not sure/Refused 7 5 2 4 7 7 6



TABLE 3
FAVOR INCREASE/DECREASE IN NUMBER OF EXECUTIONS


"In general, would you like to see an increase or decrease in
the number of convicted criminals who are executed, or no change?"

Base: All Adults


December 1997 1999 2000 2002 2003
Increase 53 43 36 35 36
Decrease 14 21 22 26 21
No change 27 28 31 30 33
Don't know/Refused 6 7 11 8 11



TABLE 4
ARE INNOCENT PEOPLE SOMETIMES CONVICTED OF MURDER?


"Do you think that innocent people are sometimes
convicted of murder or that this never happens?"

Base: All Adults

December 1999 2000 2001 2003
Sometimes happens 95 94 94 95
Never happens 3 5 3 4
Don't know/Refused 1 1 3 2



TABLE 5
WHAT PERCENT OF PEOPLE CONVICTED OF MURDER ARE INNOCENT?
(Mean, or average, responses)


"For every one hundred people convicted of murder,
how many would you guess are actually innocent?"

Base: Believe innocent people sometimes convicted of murder (95%)

December 1999 2000 2001 2003
All Adults 11 13 12 11
Sex
Men 8 10 9 10
Women 13 15 14 13
Race/ethnicity
White 10 11 10 9
African-American 18 22 22 23
Hispanic 11 12 15 16
Education
High school or less 13 14 14 13
Some college 9 12 10 11
College graduate 6 9 10 7
Post graduate 7 10 8 10
Party
Republican 7 10 9 6
Democrat 12 13 15 12
Independent 8 12 11 13



TABLE 6
POTENTIAL IMPACT OF BELIEF THAT INNOCENT PEOPLE
ARE CONVICTED ON ATTITUDES TO DEATH PENALTY


"If you believed that quite a substantial number of innocent people are
convicted of murder, would you then believe in or oppose the death penalty for murder?"

Base: Believe innocent people sometimes convicted of murder (95%)

December 2000 2001 2003
Would believe in 53 36 39**
Would oppose 36 53 51**
Don't know/Refused 11 11 9


* This represents 37% of all adults.
** This represented 47% of all adults.




Methodology

The Harris Poll(R) was conducted by telephone within the United States between December 10 and 16, 2003 among a nationwide cross-section of 993 adults (ages 18+). Figures for age, sex, race, education, number of adults and number of voice/telephone lines in the household were weighted where necessary to align them with their actual proportions in the population.

In theory, with a probability sample of this size, one can say with 95 percent certainty that the results have a statistical precision of +/- 3 percentage points of what they would be if the entire adult population had been polled with complete accuracy. Unfortunately, there are several other possible sources of error in all polls or surveys that are probably more serious than theoretical calculations of sampling error.
They include refusals to be interviewed (non-response), question wording and question order, interviewer bias, weighting by demographic control data and screening (e.g., for likely voters). It is impossible to quantify the errors that may result from these factors.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

About Harris Interactive(R)

Harris Interactive (http://www.harrisinteractive.com) is a worldwide market research and consulting firm best known for The Harris Poll(R), and for pioneering the Internet method to conduct scientifically accurate market research. Headquartered in Rochester, New York, U.S.A., Harris Interactive combines proprietary methodologies and technology with expertise in predictive, custom and strategic research. The Company conducts international research through wholly owned subsidiaries -- London-based HI Europe (http://www.hieurope.com) and Tokyo-based Harris Interactive Japan -- as well as through the Harris Interactive Global Network of local market- and opinion- research firms, and various U.S. offices.




Support for the Death Penalty Remains High at 74%

Slight majority prefers death penalty to life imprisonment as punishment for murder


Gallup News Service, May 2003




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 2-to-1 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 5 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 2 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 penalty for 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 1st state to institute a moratorium on the death penalty, and the use of the death penalty in Texas under then-GovernorGeorge 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. 26 % 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 2 questions show 62% of all Americans believe this has happened no more than 5% of the time or not at all. About 1 in 8 Americans believe that more than 20% of executions involve persons innocent of the crimes for which they were executed.

Liberals (84%) and Democrats (79%) are more likely than conservatives (64%) and Republicans (63%) to believe innocent people have been executed in the last 5 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. 2 in 3 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.



Plurality of Americans believe Death Penalty not imposed often enough

Basic support for death penalty at 70%

March 12, 2003



The state of Texas will reach a milestone this week if, according to schedule, it executes its 300th death row inmate since Texas resumed capital punishment in 1982. That milestone has renewed the debate on capital punishment, as opponents point to the accelerated pace of executions in Texas while other states, such as Maryland, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, have or are considering moratoriums on executions in their states.
Recent Gallup Polls show that seven in 10 Americans support the death penalty at a basic level, and if anything, tend to believe that it is not imposed often enough. Additionally, slim majorities of Americans believe the death penalty is applied fairly in this country, and favor it even when it is made clear that the alternative sentence would be life in prison with no possibility of parole.

According to the Associated Press, since 1976 (when the Supreme Court allowed states to resume capital punishment), more than 1/3 of all executions in the United States have taken place in Texas. Last year alone, 33 inmates were executed, and nine have been executed this year.
While Gallup has never asked specifically about the death penalty in Texas, the American public in general not only supports the use of the death penalty, but also says that it is not imposed often enough in this country.
A May 2002 poll showed 47% saying the death penalty is not imposed enough, more than double the percentage who say it is imposed too often (22%). About 1 in 4 Americans, 24%, say it is imposed "about the right amount" of times.

The most recent data show a slight shift in opinion compared with a May 2001 poll, at which time a smaller plurality said the death penalty was not imposed enough (38%), with a higher percentage saying it was imposed about the right amount of times (34%), and a similar number saying it was imposed too often (21%).

At least a plurality of most subgroups of the American population say the death penalty is not imposed often enough. An exception includes Americans with a post-graduate education, who divide equally between saying it is imposed too often (33%), imposed the right number of times (31%), and is not imposed often enough (31%).
Groups that generally show stronger support for the death penalty - Republicans, political conservatives, and men - are more likely to say the death penalty is not imposed enough. For example, 56% of Republicans say the death penalty is not imposed enough, compared with 49% of independents and 37% of Democrats. Democrats are much more likely to say the death penalty is imposed too often (30%) than are Republicans (13%), but a plurality of Democrats say it is not imposed enough.

The May 2002 poll also showed a majority of Americans, 53%, saying the death penalty is applied fairly in this country, while 40% say it is applied unfairly. An earlier measurement, from June 2000, showed similar results, with 51% saying fairly and 43% unfairly.

Basic Support for Death Penalty High

As far as more general views on the death penalty are concerned, the latest Gallup reading, from October 2002, shows 70% of Americans in favor of and 25% opposed to the death penalty for persons convicted of murder (support for the death penalty averaged 71% in 2002). This basic level of support is slightly higher than it was throughout 2000 and 2001, when about two in three Americans supported the death penalty. The historical high point in support came in 1994, when 80% of Americans favored the death penalty, and the low point came in May 1966, when 42% were in favor (and 47% opposed). Gallup has been asking this basic death penalty question since 1936.

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

A slightly different question asks the public to choose between the death penalty and life imprisonment with no possibility of parole as the better penalty for murder. On this measure, support for the death penalty is substantially lower than the basic measure would suggest, but still a majority of Americans, 52%, favor the death penalty, according to the May 2002 poll. 43 % of Americans think life imprisonment is the better punishment.



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