Over Three in Five Americans Believe in Death Penalty

Half of Americans Say Death Penalty Not a Deterrent to Others

ROCHESTER, N.Y.--()--Over the past few years there have been many high profile cases where those on death row have been found to be innocent and some states have halted executions. In the minds of Americans, this may have had an impact as the number of those who believe in the death penalty has declined since 2003. Currently, 63 percent of Americans believe in the death penalty while three in ten (30%) are opposed to it. Five years ago, almost seven in ten (69%) believed in it while 22 percent were opposed to it. In 1965, when The Harris Poll® first started asking this question, just under half of Americans (47%) were opposed to the death penalty while 38 percent believed in it.

These are some of the results of a Harris Poll of 1,010 adults surveyed by telephone between February 5 and 11, 2008 by Harris Interactive®.

Death Penalty as a Deterrent

One question with regard to the death penalty is whether or not it serves as a deterrent to others. Just over half (52%) of Americans believe that executing people who commit murder does not have much effect on deterring others from committing murder. Two in five (42%) say that executing people does deter others from committing murder. These numbers are almost identical to 2003 as well as 2001, so attitudes on this issue appear to be holding steady. However, this is a difference from 1976. Then, almost six in ten (59%) believed executing people deterred others while one-third (34%) believed that it did not have much effect.

Change in Number of Executions

When it comes to whether people would like to see an increase or decrease in the number of convicted criminals who are executed, there is a bit of a divide among Americans. Just over one-third (36%) believe there should be an increase while one-quarter (26%) say there should be a decrease and three in ten (31%) believe there should be no change. While the number of Americans who believe there should be an increase has not changed since 2003, the number of those saying a decrease has increased from 21 percent. Looking back a decade, in 1997 over half (53%) of Americans believed there should be an increase and just 14 percent said a decrease in the number of executions.

Convictions of Innocent People for Murder

There is one issue almost all Americans agree on 95 percent of U.S. adults say that sometimes innocent people are convicted of murder while only 5 percent believe that this never occurs. This is a number that has held steady since 1999. Among those who believe innocent people are sometimes convicted of murder, when asked how many they believe are innocent, the average is 12 out of 100 or 12 percent. In looking at this by race and ethnicity, African Americans believe more innocent people are convicted than both Whites and Hispanics (25% versus 9% and 12% respectively). Democrats also believe more innocent people are convicted than Republicans (15% versus 6%).

Now, among this large group who believe innocent people are sometimes convicted of murder, the question becomes does this change the minds of people on the death penalty. When asked to suppose they believed that quite a substantial number of innocent people are convicted of murder, over half (58%) say they would then oppose the death penalty while just over one-third (35%) would believe in it. One impact of the recent cases in the news may be the change over time on this question. In 2000, over half (53%) of those who believe innocent people are convicted of murder said they would believe in the death penalty while 36 percent said they would oppose it.

 

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

  1965 1969 1970 1973 1976 1983 1997 1999 2000 2001 2003 2008
% % % % % % % % % % % %
Believe in it 38 48 47 59 67 68 75 71 64 67 69 63
Opposed to it 47 38 42 31 25 27 22 21 25 26 22 30

Not sure / Refused

15 14 11 10 8 5 3 8 11 7 9 7
 

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 dont have much effect?"

Base: All Adults

  1976 1983 1997 1999 2000 2001 2003 2008
% % % % % % % %
Deters others 59 63 49 47 44 42 41 42
Not much effect 34 32 49 49 50 52 53 52
Not sure/Refused 7 5 2 4 7 7 6 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

  1997 1999 2000 2001 2003 2008
% % % % % %
Increase 53 43 36 35 36 36
Decrease 14 21 22 26 21 26
No change 27 28 31 30 33 31
Dont know/Refused 6 7 11 8 11 7
 

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

  1999 2000 2001 2003 2008
% % % % %
Sometimes happens 95 94 94 95 95
Never happens 3 5 3 4 4
Dont know/Refused 1 1 3 2 1
 

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%)

  1999 2000 2001 2003 2008
% % % % %
All Adults 11 13 12 11 12
Sex          
Men 8 10 9 10 10
Women 13 15 14 13 14
Race/Ethnicity          
White 10 11 10 9 9
African-American 18 22 22 23 25
Hispanic 11 12 15 16 12
Education          
High school or less 13 14 14 13 14
Some college 9 12 10 11 11
College graduate 6 9 10 7 10
Post graduate 7 10 8 10 8
Party          
Republican 7 10 9 6 6
Democrat 12 13 15 12 15
Independent 8 12 11 13 12
 

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%)

  2000 2001 2003 2008
% % % %
Would believe in 53 36 39 35*
Would oppose 36 53 51 58**
Dont know/Refused 11 11 9 7

* This represents 34% of all adults.

**This represented 58% of all adults.

Methodology

The Harris Poll was conducted by telephone within the United States between February 5 and 11, 2008 among a nationwide cross section of 1,010 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region, number of adults in the household, size of place (urbanicity), and number of phone lines voice/telephone lines in the household were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling are subject to ,multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, Harris Interactive avoids the words margin of error as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

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

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Q755, 760, 765, 770, 775, 780

About Harris Interactive

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Harris Interactive Inc. 3/08

Contacts

Press:
Harris Interactive
Tracey McNerney, 585-214-7756

Contacts

Press:
Harris Interactive
Tracey McNerney, 585-214-7756