Dec. 19, 2003 -- — Most Americans prefer to spare the life of convicted Washington, D.C., sniper Lee Malvo, a view reflecting the public's broader disinclination to execute juvenile murderers.
Given a choice, 52 percent say they'd prefer a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for Malvo, while 37 percent prefer the death penalty. (Support for execution is higher, 56 percent, when no other option is offered).
The results reflect broader concerns about executing juveniles. With no alternative offered, a quarter of Americans support the death penalty for juvenile killers in general, a quarter say it depends on the circumstances and half oppose it. But given an alternative, 62 percent prefer mandatory life; just 21 percent favor capital punishment.
Support for executing rather than imprisoning Malvo — 37 percent, vs. 21 percent support for the general policy — likely reflects the nature and notoriety of his crime.
Malvo was convicted Thursday of killing an FBI analyst in a Virginia parking lot, one of 10 deaths in a shooting spree that terrorized the capital area last fall (this poll was conducted before the verdict.) He was 17 years old at the time of the crime.
Malvo's surrogate father, John Muhammad, was convicted of another of the slayings, and sentenced to death, last month.
Americans are more likely to back the death penalty for adults convicted of murder, especially when no alternative is mentioned. But they divide when given a choice of punishments. In an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll early this year, 64 percent favored the death penalty in principle, but when given a choice it was a much narrower split: Forty-nine percent preferred executing murderers, while 45 percent favored life without parole.
With adult killers, too, support for capital punishment can be higher in specific cases. In 2001, 75 percent favored executing Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
There's a gender gap, with women less likely than men to support the death penalty. With no other option offered, 55 percent of women oppose the death penalty in juvenile cases, compared with 42 percent of men. Given an alternative, women are 10 points more likely than men to prefer mandatory life, 67 percent to 57 percent.
Specifically in Malvo's case, with no alternative, 46 percent of women support the death penalty, compared with 67 percent of men. Given an option, 57 percent of women prefer mandatory life, compared with 47 percent of men.
Political partisanship is also a factor. When the death penalty is mentioned alone, 68 percent of Republicans say they would support it for Malvo, compared with 55 percent of independents and 48 percent of Democrats. When given a choice of sentences, 61 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents say they'd prefer mandatory life; just 39 percent of Republicans agree.
This ABCNEWS poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 10-14, among a random national sample of 1,031 adults. Each question was asked of a random half of the total sample. The results have a 4.5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation was conducted by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.
Previous ABCNEWS polls can be found in our Poll Vault.