Poll: Public Ambivalent About Death Penalty

The pending execution of Timothy McVeigh comes at a time of deep and growing ambivalence about the death penalty, to the point that bare majorities of Americans favor a moratorium on executions — or even a law replacing them with mandatory life in prison.

Most people, 63 percent, support the death penalty when no other option is presented. But that's down from a high of 80 percent seven years ago, and it's weakly held: Support for executions drops to 46 percent when life without parole is offered as an alternative.

While support for the death penalty is widely known, polls less frequently delve into the public's ambivalence about it, and the support for alternatives. One reason for these views is a growing sense that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent to murder; a majority now holds this view, up 20 points in the last 15 years.

This ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll finds broad agreement with two other arguments against the death penalty: That it's applied unfairly across jurisdictions, and that innocent people are sometimes executed. And the strongest argument in favor — that it prevents killers from killing again — is also achieved by life in prison without parole.


Given these views, 51 percent of Americans say they'd support a law replacing the death penalty with mandatory life; 46 percent would oppose such legislation. Equal numbers would support it "strongly" as oppose it strongly — about a quarter on each side.

Fifty-one percent also say they'd support a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty while a commission studies whether it's been administered fairly. And when people are told that such a moratorium currently exists in Illinois, support for a national moratorium advances to 57 percent.

Pro and Con

There are persuasive arguments for the death penalty as well as against it in the public's mind, which fuels the public's ambivalence about it.

Strongest is that it prevents the killer from killing again: Seventy-two percent of Americans agree with this as an argument in favor of executions, and 48 percent agree strongly. As noted, life without parole presumably accomplishes the same goal, which likely is one reason it's an acceptable alternative to many people.

Sixty percent also think the death penalty is fair because it gives satisfaction and closure to the families of victims; and 56 percent agree with the argument that it's fair because it represents "an eye for an eye — the killer is killed."

At the same time, 68 percent of Americans say the death penalty is unfair "because sometimes an innocent person is executed," and 63 percent say it's unfair because it's applied differently from county to county and state to state.

Another argument gets less credence: Just 37 percent say the penalty is unfair "because it's applied unequally to blacks compared to whites."


Another argument in support of the death penalty has lost favor: The notion that it acts as a deterrent to murder. In a 1985 Gallup poll, 62 percent agreed with that view. By 1991 it was down to 51 percent. Today just 43 percent agree.


The death penalty also is less of a political issue than might be assumed: Just 28 percent of Americans say it's "very important" in their vote that a candidate for state or national office agrees with their position on the issue. That includes roughly equal numbers of supporters and opponents of the death penalty.

It's political in another sense, however: The issue is one that sharply divides political groups in this country. Given a choice of the death penalty vs. life in prison for convicted murderers, Republicans favor the death penalty by a 2-1 margin, while more Democrats prefer the life sentence. Independents divide right down the middle.

Similarly, while 61 percent of Democrats said they'd support a law replacing the death penalty with mandatory life, this declines to 49 percent of independents and 36 percent of Republicans. Democrats and independents each account for just under a third of the public, slightly outnumbering Republicans.

Men and Women

There's also a sharp division on the death penalty between the races, with blacks much more apt to oppose it; and between the sexes. On the basic measure, the death penalty with no alternative offered, it's supported by 70 percent of men, compared to 58 percent of women.

Given the alternative of life without parole, 55 percent of men prefer the death penalty, compared to 39 percent of women. And a law replacing the death penalty with mandatory life is favored by 44 percent of men, compared to 57 percent of women.


This ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone April 20-24, 2001, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Data collection and tabulation by ICR- International Communications Research of Media, Pa.

Previous ABCNEWS polls can be found in our Poll Vault.