Death-Penalty Opinion Varies With the Question On the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision reinstating capitol punishment, polls show that America's opinions on the death penalty are as varied as ever. But as with all polls, the way you ask the question influences whether responders say they approve of capital punishment. 
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Death-Penalty Opinion Varies With the Question

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Death-Penalty Opinion Varies With the Question


Death-Penalty Opinion Varies With the Question

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To mark the anniversary, NPR's Ari Shapiro asked some leading pollsters to describe Americans' views on executions.

ARI SHAPIRO: Gary Langer is director of polling for ABC News. When a producer asks him for the number on the death penalty, the percentage of Americans that supports it, he replies, which one do you want?

GARY LANGER: The 65 or the 49? And that's because public opinion on the death penalty differs, depending on the question.

SHAPIRO: If you ask people whether they support or oppose the death penalty for murderers, about two-thirds of Americans say they support it. If you ask whether people prefer that murderers get the death penalty or life in prison without parole, then you get a 50-50 split.

LANGER: Now that's not contradiction, but it's complexity. For example, I might ask you, Ari, if you'd like a cookie and you might say yes, thank you. And I might say, well, what would you prefer, a cookie or a slice of cake? And you might say, well, now that you mention it, I'll take the cake.

SHAPIRO: When pollsters measure Americans' opinions about the death penalty, small differences in the question can produce big differences in the answer. For example, ask whether Americans support the death penalty for juveniles and the number drops to about a third. For terrorists, the number shoots up. The Gallup Poll has been asking about this subject since 1937. The poll's editor-in-chief, Frank Newport, says a majority of Americans believes there are problems with the death penalty.

FRANK NEWPORT: They do tell us that they do believe innocent people have been executed by mistake.

SHAPIRO: A majority of Americans also tells Gallup they believe the death penalty does not deter crime.

NEWPORT: But despite that, these same people in the same poll will come back, at least the majority of them, and say they support it.

SHAPIRO: So Gallup asks an open-ended question.

NEWPORT: Why do you support the death penalty? And what we get is psychological reasons more than any other, the Biblical eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth closure that you see with victims' families a lot.

SHAPIRO: The numbers change when you divide Americans into demographic groups. Michael Dimock is the associate director at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Probably the biggest factor is race. African-Americans are much more uncertain about the death penalty. There's much more opposition in the African-American community. There's also a bit more opposition among Hispanics.

SHAPIRO: Men tend to favor the death penalty more than women, though the number is above 50 percent for both groups. And Dimock says, younger people are less supportive of the death penalty than older people.

DIMOCK: And as the younger generation becomes a larger portion of the population, that can have a small effect on overall attitudes. We've seen this on other views like homosexuality, which has moved over time, largely due to this kind of generational shift.

SHAPIRO: There's no good data showing whether the same age gap existed 30 years ago. There are also a few over-arching trends in attitudes toward the death penalty. Gallup polling shows support hit a low point in the '60s and '70s. That was the only time a majority of Americans opposed the death penalty. In the '90s, support peaked around 80 percent, and it's been dropping since then, says ABC's Gary Langer.

LANGER: I think if we looked a the crime rate, the murder rate, that might give us some reason why.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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