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Capital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy

Public Opinion

American public opinion appears to support the death penalty for murder and has done so throughout the twentieth century, except for a brief period in the mid-1960s. In the 1990s, nearly 80 percent of the public approved of capital punishment; about 5 percent were undecided and the rest opposed it. However, more careful investigations of public attitudes have shown that given the option of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP), the public support for the death penalty drops by a significant amount, in some cases by half (from 80 percent to 40 percent). This research supports the view that while the public generally accepts the death penalty for murderers, it prefers their long-term imprisonment. And capital trial juries, all of them vetted to exclude anyone strongly opposed to the death penalty, coupled with plea bargaining practices, produce death sentences in only about 10 percent of the murder cases where it might be issued. Understandably, opponents of the death penalty view public support of executions as "a mile wide but only an inch deep."

No doubt public support for the death penalty is a powerful political factor in explaining the decline of executive clemency in capital cases and the willingness of most legislatures, state and federal, to expand the list of capital crimes. (Executive clemency in capital cases dropped from an annual average of twenty-two in the 1960s to two in the 1990s.) In Europe, however, despite popular majorities in many countries that have supported the death penalty for decades, parliaments have not only abolished it, they have gone further and made abolition a condition of entry into the Council of Europe.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCapital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy - The Death Penalty In America, 1793–1982, Current Status, Capital Crimes, Public Opinion, Administration