-- More than one-third of Americans now oppose the death penalty — the highest level in nearly 40 years — according to a Gallup Poll out Thursday.
Moreover, those who believe the death penalty is being applied fairly, and those who say it isn't used often enough, are at the lowest levels in a decade, underscoring significant changes in attitudes.
Gallup found that 35% of those polled oppose the death penalty — the highest opposition since March 1972. That year, the Supreme Court effectively ruled that the death penalty was constitutional unless it was applied unfairly. By 1976, several states had reinstituted capital punishment.
Just 40% of those polled last week believe the death penalty isn't imposed often enough, the lowest level since May 2001.
The poll was conducted shortly after two controversial cases drew attention: the September execution of Troy Davis and last week's Supreme Court hearing involving Alabama death row inmate Cory Maples.
Davis was executed despite evidence that he may have been wrongly convicted in the 1989 murder of Savannah, Ga., police officer Mark MacPhail.
Maples was convicted of murdering two companions, but his death sentence is being appealed because his court-appointed lawyers failed to present key evidence about his background during the penalty phase of his trial.
Such highly publicized cases are altering public opinion, says Diann Rust-Tierney, head of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
"The numbers are consistent with what we've been seeing. People see cases like these where they just can't square the executions with a common sense of fairness," Rust-Tierney says. "There's been a steady erosion in confidence in the system as more and more people sentenced to death have had their cases overturned."
Nearly 140 death row inmates have been exonerated or had their cases overturned on appeals, Rust-Tierney says.
Increasingly, death penalty cases are also viewed as being costly and providing little deterrent against serious crimes, says Barry Scheck, a law professor and co-director of the Innocence Project, which, like the American Bar Association, is seeking a moratorium on executions.
"There are 700 inmates on death row in California alone, and the amount of time and expense to handle those cases is mind-boggling," says Scheck, noting that capital punishment cases in that state take an average of 25 years to work through trials and appeals and have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
"The general public doesn't believe that the death penalty is a deterrent or is making anyone safer," Scheck says. He says the Gallup Poll may underestimate opposition to capital punishment because it doesn't ask a key question: whether those polled view life imprisonment as a better alternative.