More than half of Americans support the death penalty, survey finds

A recent survey found that more than half of Americans favor the death penalty despite its decline in states over the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center. 

The survey was conducted in the United States between April 5 - 11 and had 5,109 adult participants. 

A total of 60% surveyed favored the death penalty with 27% strongly favoring it, according to Pew. 

"About four-in-ten (39%) oppose the death penalty, with 15% strongly opposed," Pew added. 

Pew also noted that 2020 saw the lowest number of capital executions in more than three decades. While the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the low numbers, the death penalty was already seeing a slow decline throughout the U.S. 


FILE - A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility shows an electric chair and gurney Aug. 29, 2001 in Lucasville, Ohio.

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"But even before the pandemic struck, the death sentences and executions in the first quarter of the year had put the United States on pace for a sixth consecutive year of 50 or fewer new death sentences and 30 or fewer executions," according to the Death Penalty Information Center. 

Pew found that 63% of the adults surveyed believed the death penalty did not significantly deter people from committing serious crimes. However, 64% overall found that the death penalty was justified if a person is convicted of murder. 

The deterrent effect of the death penalty has also long been questioned. Several studies have shown it doesn’t work to reduce crime. Particularly, perpetrators of mass killings are already subject to the death penalty in 30 states as well as under federal law. According to an analysis from the DPIC, all but two of the states where mass shootings have occurred already have capital punishment. 

"A DPIC study of 30 years of FBI Uniform Crime Report homicide data found that the South has consistently had by far the highest murder rate. The South accounts for more than 80% of executions. The Northeast, which has fewer than 0.5% of all executions, has consistently had the lowest murder rate," according to DPIC’s website. 

Data collected by DPIC in 2018 found that states with the death penalty saw an average murder rate of 4.8 murders per 100,000 people and the states without the death penalty saw an average of 3.6. 

And despite mounting evidence that the death penalty does not significantly deter serious crimes, most Americans believe it is morally justified to carry out an execution for people who commit serious crimes such as murder. 

"Among the public overall, 64% say the death penalty is morally justified in cases of murder, while 33% say it is not justified. An overwhelming share of death penalty supporters (90%) say it is morally justified under such circumstances, compared with 25% of death penalty opponents," Pew said. 

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Additionally, 78% believed there was some risk that an innocent person would be put to death, "while only 21% think there are adequate safeguards in place to prevent that from happening." 

According to Witness to Innocence (WTI), which is an organization comprised of exonerated death row survivors working to abolish the death penalty, 185 men and women from 28 states have been exonerated and freed from death row since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. 

Pew noted that only 30% of the people who supported the death penalty believe there are adequate safeguards to prevent wrongful executions. 

Data collected by the Death Penalty Information Center found "that for every 8.3 people who have been put to death in the U.S. since executions resumed in the 1970s, one person who had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death has been exonerated." 

Further research was done on the 185 exonerated cases and disturbing patterns of misconduct and racial bias from law enforcement and lawyers were discovered, according to DPIC. 

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"Nearly 70% of the exonerations involved misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials. Eighty percent of wrongful capital convictions involved some combination of misconduct or perjury/false accusation and more than half involved both," according to DPIC. 

Of the adults surveyed, 56% believed Black people were more likely than White people to be sentenced to death if convicted of a serious crime, Pew continued. 

"This view is particularly widespread among Black adults: 85% of Black adults say Black people are more likely than Whites to receive the death penalty for being convicted of similar crimes (61% of Hispanic adults and 49% of White adults say this)," according to Pew. 

A 2020 report conducted by DPIC found that throughout the modern era, people of color have been overrepresented on death row — in 2019, 52% of the death row inmates were Black, but that number has dropped to 42% this year when approximately 60% of the population is White. But it also showed that the killers of White people were more likely than the killers of Black people to face the death penalty, and cases with White victims were more likely to be investigated. 

Since the death penalty resumed in 1977, 295 Black defendants were executed for killing a White victim, but only 21 White defendants were executed for the killing of a Black victim even though Black people are disproportionately the victims of crime, according to DPIC. 

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Views on the death penalty also show significant differences when it comes to political party affiliation. 

Over half, 77%, of voters who lean Republican are in favor of the death penalty, with 40% strongly favoring it, and 46% of voters who lean Democrat are in favor, with 53% opposed. 

"About a quarter of Democrats (23%) strongly oppose the death penalty, compared with 17% who strongly favor it," Pew added. 

Pew noted that over the past two years, the number of Republicans in favor of the death penalty for serious crimes decreased by 7%. 

Age ranges among political party affiliation also showed varying support or disapproval which mirrored generational differences. For instance, 64% of Republicans who were between the ages of 18-34 were less likely to support the death penalty. 

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Among Democrats, those who were between the ages of 50 to 64 were more likely to support the death penalty, Pew said. 

"A 58% majority of 50- to 64-year-old Democrats favor the death penalty, compared with 47% of those ages 35 to 49 and about four-in-ten Democrats who are 18 to 34 or 65 and older," according to Pew. 

The death penalty is legal in 24 states and 23 states have now abolished it. Three others have moratoriums in place that were imposed by their governors. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.