In U.S., 64% Support Death Penalty in Cases of Murder; Half Say Death Penalty Not Imposed

In U.S., 64% Support Death Penalty in Cases of Murder; Half Say Death Penalty Not Imposed

In U.S., 64% Support Death Penalty in Cases of Murder; Half say death penalty not imposed often enough.(Survey).

Gallup Poll News Service (Nov 8, 2010)(1032 words)

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COPYRIGHT 2010 Gallup Organization

Byline: Frank Newport

Synopsis: Two in three Americans (64%) continue to support the use of the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, while 29% oppose it -- continuing a trend that has shown little change over the last seven years.

PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup's annual Crime Survey finds that 64% of Americans continue to support the use of the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, while 29% oppose it -- continuing a trend that has shown little change over the last seven years.

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Americans' views of the death penalty are particularly significant at this time, with several high-profile cases involving the death penalty in the news, including the imminent sentencing of convicted murderer Steven J. Hayes in Connecticut, a state in which only one person has been executed in the last 50 years.

Opponents of the death penalty continue to point out that DNA tests and other evidence have shown on numerous occasions that individuals sentenced to the death penalty were in fact innocent.

Despite the continuing controversy over the use of the death penalty, the attitudes of the average American on this issue have hardly changed in recent years. The current 64% support level is roughly equal to what Gallup has found through most of this decade.

This question about the death penalty in cases of murder is one of Gallup's oldest trends -- stretching back to 1936, when 59% of Americans supported the death penalty and 38% opposed it. Despite the similarity between today's attitudinal structure and what was found in 1936, there have been significant changes in the decades in between. At one point in 1994, 80% of Americans favored the death penalty, the all-time high on this measure. In 1966, 42% supported it, the all-time low.

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Americans Split on Death Penalty vs. Life Imprisonment With No Possibility of Parole

Gallup from time to time asks a separate question on the death penalty that provides respondents with the explicit alternative of "life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole." Given this choice, the public this year splits roughly evenly, with 49% saying the death penalty is the better penalty for murder, while 46% opt for life imprisonment. This split is roughly the same as in 2006, when this question was last asked. However, prior to 2000, support generally tilted more strongly toward the death penalty option.

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Half Say Death Penalty Not Imposed Often Enough

About half (49%) of Americans in this year's update say the death penalty is not imposed often enough and 26% say it is imposed "about the right amount," while 18% say it is imposed too often. These attitudes are little changed since 2002.

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Similarly, 58% say the death penalty is applied fairly in this country today, while 36% say it is not, attitudes that have been stable in recent years.

These beliefs persist even though one of the main arguments against the death penalty is that it is applied unfairly -- that members of certain minority groups are more likely to receive the death penalty than others convicted of the same crimes, or that the arbitrary differences in trial procedures, judges, and jurisdictions can make a difference in who receives the death penalty and who doesn't.

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Republicans, Men, Whites Express Most Support for Death Penalty

Men, whites, and Republicans are among the most likely to support the death penalty -- similar to previous years, although majorities of women, nonwhites, and Democrats also approve.

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Bottom Line

The use of the death penalty has been declining worldwide, with most of the known executions now carried out in five countries -- China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Anti-death penalty groups in the U.S. continue to fight the use of the death penalty, particularly when there are high-profile instances of its use, such as this year's execution in Virginia of Teresa Lewis, the first woman to be executed in that state in almost 100 years. Despite this, Gallup's latest update in October shows no diminution in the strong majority level of support for the death penalty in cases of murder within the U.S.

Support for the death penalty can vary, depending on what the alternatives are, and also in reference to the specific circumstances of individual cases. For example, support drops to about half of the population when Americans are given the opportunity to choose the explicit alternative of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. On the other hand, previous Gallup research has shown that in specific instances of highly visible, heinous crimes, support can rise to as high as 80%. That was the case when Gallup in 2001 asked Americans about the use of the death penalty for convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, whose actions resulted in the deaths of 168 people.

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Oct. 7-10, 2010, with a random sample of 1,025 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is 4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2009 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

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.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

Source Citation

Newport, Frank. "In U.S., 64% Support Death Penalty in Cases of Murder; Half say death penalty not imposed often enough." Gallup Poll News Service (2010).General Reference Center Gold.Web. 21 May 2011.

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Moral judgments and emotional pain.(PSYCHIATRY & THE LAW).

Psychiatric Times 27.10 (Oct 2010): p.14. (1970 words)

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[T]he ultimate choice the jury must make between life and death is a profoundly moral one.

Charles W. Burson (Attorney General of Tennessee) Oral Argument in Payne v Tennessee (1)

There are questions we could not get past if we were not set free from them by our very nature.

Franz Kafka (2)

In the famous death penalty case of Payne v Tennessee, the Supreme Court disregarded 2 of its own previous holdings by finding no constitutional bar to a jury considering "victim impact" testimony at the sentencing phase of a death penalty case. (3) A victim impact statement is a written or oral statement given by the victim of the crime after a guilty verdict and during the sentencing phase of a trial. Its intent is to allow those affected by the crime an opportunity to express the devastating emotional and physical pain the crime has caused them. (4) In crimes resulting in death, the right to speak is extended to family members.

The Payne jury heard heart-wrenching victim impact testimony from the grandmother of a surviving 3-year-old victim whose mother was killed by Pervis Tyrone Payne in the same crime. While the little boy was stabbed multiple times, the boy's mother was killed after suffering approximately 42 stab wounds. Police described the crime scene as horrifying. After Payne was found guilty of both murder and attempted murder, the prosecutor told the jury during the capital sentencing phase that the young boy would grow up and "want to know what type of justice was done." Payne was sentenced to death, and currently resides on Tennessee's death row. (5)

When the case was heard in oral arguments before the Supreme Court, the Tennessee Attorney General emphasized that it was important for the jury to have "the full picture of the harm that was caused by the act which took the life of the victim [emphasis added]." After all, the defense had broad latitude when introducing mitigating evidence, and the prosecution must be able to counteract this with a method of assessing harm to determine the appropriate punishment. During the ascendancy of the victim's rights movement, the Payne case allowed victim impact statements in US courts, where a majority of states now use them. Since most would agree that the decision before a capital jury is a profoundly moral one, it may be interesting to consider what behavioral science currently knows about moral decision making.

Moral judgment and emotional engagement

Morally motivated decision making has been increasingly studied by the social sciences, and distinctive patterns are emerging. In the midst of a moral dilemma, study subjects tend to adopt a utilitarian frame of reference when a certain distance from mortality is afforded. In contrast, most subjects begin to have serious moral reservations as their decisions come closer to directly affecting a human life. In the research on moral judgment, 2 moral dilemma paradigms are frequently used to show how people respond with more emotion to dilemmas when the consequences to the victim are more direct. (6)

In the trolley dilemma, participants are told that a trolley with defective brakes is on course to run over 5 workers on the tracks. The trolley can be redirected only to a sidetrack where 1 worker will be killed. In the footbridge variation of this dilemma, there is no sidetrack, and subjects are told that the only option available is to push 1 worker from a footbridge onto the tracks, which will stop the train from killing the 5 workers. From a purely utilitarian perspective, 5 lives can be saved for the price of 1. Nevertheless, most subjects will find redirecting the trolley acceptable, while pushing the worker from the footbridge is unacceptable.

Taking a more detailed view, researchers made a distinction between agents and patients: "Agents (eg, the trolley) play an active role in bringing about a harmful effect (eg, death) to patients (eg, the track workers)." Thus, one can have agent interventions (trolley redirected), or patient interventions (1 worker pushed to save 5 workers). Clearly, agent interventions appear to be more permissible than patient interventions.

With respect to agent interventions, most participants adopted a utilitarian approach, leaning toward finding the redirection option morally permissible. With patient interventions, participants are forced more directly to consider their action's causal connection to the death of the individual. The conflict would seem to become more immediate, more vivid, and (one might suspect) more emotionally laden. In fact, recent brain imaging studies appear to support the hypothesis that difficult moral judgments elicit greater activity in areas associated with emotion. When 24 subjects were presented with moral and nonmoral scenarios, the moral dilemmas were associated with more activity in the orbitofrontal cortex and temporal pole, and less activity in other areas associated with cognition. (7) In another study, there was greater activation in areas associated with emotional processing when participants were told to consider patient interventions rather than agent interventions. (8)

These findings strongly suggest that emotional processing is heavily involved when more direct harm is considered. Where emotion is absent or minimized, a risk-benefit analysis can take over, and decision making that results in harm can become more impersonal, and ultimately, permissible. Thus, one might conclude that people have a preference for indirect over direct harm where moral decisions are concerned.

In sum, utilitarian approaches are more likely to be used when subjects must merely allow harm to happen, whereas emotional reactions are more likely when decisions involve actively bringing about harm. (9) Finally, when people have "sacred" or protected values, they tend to be less sensitive to the consequences of their choices than people who do not have such protected values. (10)

Death in the abstract

Moral judgments conform to a pattern that is intimately associated with emotions. It would seem that moral decision makers feel a pull toward minimizing the emotional distress involved by confining the decision to an idealized analysis of cost versus benefit. This phenomenon has been confirmed by social science but is also readily discernible in such societal morality plays as the debate over the death penalty. While much of the debate attempts to transform the issue into a sterile analysis of competing "data," the persistence and non-resolution of the debate points to its strong emotional roots. It has been noted that the persistence and resilience of the death penalty in the United States might be explained by acknowledging its strong emotional variables, which ultimately under-gird all so-called rational debate. (11)

Consistent with the previously mentioned research on moral decision making, research on the death penalty has found that decisions to recommend death for a given offender were less likely when specific information about the offender and details leading up to the offense were presented to the jury. (12,13) Of course, experienced prosecutors have long been aware of this--which is precisely why they go to great lengths to create the appearance of a dispassionate process. One legal scholar noted that the following messages are routinely conveyed to jurors: "You are not making a profoundly disturbing ethical choice about the taking of a life. You are not directly responsible ... you are just one link in a complex chain." (11) This helps create emotional distance, in addition to diffusing feelings of personal responsibility.

Thus, while opponents of capital punishment are denigrated for being overly emotional and "lacking in the rationality and tough-mindedness the law requires," it seems clear that proponents are equally influenced by emotions--either retributive or by vigorous avoidance of them. (11) Given these speculations, it has been argued that the influence of emotions should be reexamined and acknowledged as being "at the center of the debate" on capital punishment. The fact that emotions are not currently at the center of the debate must inform us of something. Perhaps the emotional process of confronting facts that would give the decision maker a clearer view of the emotional details of the tragedy may prove too traumatic and unbearable, leading him or her to rely on defenses that attenuate emotion. Psychotherapists can confirm that when one is in the midst of an emotional trauma, the need for deliverance is often overwhelming and may be experienced as the pull of a system of guarantees. This pull is never greater than when one has come face to face with a trauma that has threatened to dissolve those guarantees.

Spinoza's fundamental insight into emotion is the starting point that takes one to the heart of who we are--emotional beings forced by that fact to seek the emotions that will release us from the burden and suffering of other emotions. Trauma reveals that fact in a way that puts emotion on trial. We may replace one emotion after another, seeking the one that will resolve the problems of the psyche. Beside the simple root desire of avoiding pain lies another challenge that encourages us to flee: the tragic event often possesses the power to destroy the value we place on ourselves and the qualities by which we have defined our character. We define ourselves in terms of our service to values, which thereby become properties of our moral character. Our perception of our worth and identity often emanate from those values that we refuse to compromise.

But often, in the face of a profoundly tragic event, defenses and character armor collapse under the infinitely dense mass of reality. Reality and its undistorted meanings are then more fully available. Paradoxically, to know the actual truth of one's emotional constitution depends on taking precisely those actions that will engage the core conflicts. Indeed, it might be said that we aren't what we know about ourselves--we are what we do in the face of that knowledge. This then, becomes the difficult truth that now defines one's relationship to oneself.