Death penalty support slips below majority of Americans

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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American views on the death penalty continue to sour, with for the first time in four decades fewer than half supporting its use.

That’s according to a new poll from Pew Research Center that found 49 percent of Americans support capital punishment for people convicted of murder, while 42 percent oppose it -- its highest level since 1972. As recently as March 2015, support sat at 56 percent, with 38 percent opposed.

The decline in public support for the death penalty has been the prevailing pattern since its peak in 1994 (80 percent), when just 16 percent opposed it use. The last time support fell below 50 percent came 45 years ago, in 1971. The only time polling showed opposition to capital punishment surpassing support was in 1966.

While support overall is waning -- Pew found declines among nearly all groups -- clear divisions remain in subsects of the population.

Overall, more Catholics oppose the death penalty (46 percent) than support it (43 percent), but a majority emerges among white Catholic adults, with 54 percent in favor of capital punishment compared to 39 percent opposed. Likewise, large majorities of both white evangelical Protestants and white mainline Protestants support the death penalty. Half of religiously unaffiliated Americans oppose capital punishment.  

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with Pope Francis, has called for an end to the death penalty.                                                                                                                                                            

The trend of white people backing the death penalty holds true among all Americans, with 57 percent of them backing the death penalty. That stands in stark contrast to black and Hispanic Americans, where roughly a third of black and Hispanic Americans favor its use, compared to opposition among 63 percent and 50 percent, respectively.

Among Republicans, 72 percent support the death penalty, though that figure has gradually fallen since the mid-2000s, dropping 5 percentage points from 2015. Just a third of Democrats support capital punishment, as do roughly four-in-10 independents, a group who just a year ago saw 57 percent backing for the death penalty.

Both presidential candidates have voiced support for capital punishment. In December Republican candidate Donald Trump said he would issue an executive order mandating the death penalty for persons who kills a police officer. And during a February primary debate Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton affirmed her support of the death penalty, though qualifying it as “an appropriate punishment” only in “very limited, particularly heinous crimes.”

The Pew survey found other modest contrasts apparent by gender -- men 55 percent support, 38 percent oppose; women 43 percent support, 45 percent oppose – and by age, with those ages 18-29 the only cohort where a majority (51 percent) are against the use of the death penalty. Education also shows division, with a slim majority college graduates opposed to capital punishment and a slim majority of people with some college education or less favoring it.

The survey was conducted Aug. 23-Sept. 2, and polled 1,201 U.S. adults by phone. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.  

As public support for the death penalty has dropped, so too has its use. There have been 16 executions in the U.S. in 2016, 14 fewer than the previous year and more than half those that occurred in 2014. Since their peak in 1999, the number of executions have largely fallen, with a brief peak in 2009 before the decline continued.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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