60% of Americans favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, according to an Oct. 3-6, 2013 poll conducted by Gallup. The number is the lowest level of support for the death penalty since Nov. 1972, when 57% favored the practice.
The Gallup poll also found sharp disagreement along political lines. 81% of Republicans currently favor the death penalty (up from an all-time low of 73% in 2011), compared with 47% of Democrats. 60% of Independents support the death penalty, matching the national average.
Gallup began polling Americans about the death penalty in 1936. Support for the death penalty has exceeded opposition to it in all but their May 1966 survey that was conducted during an “era marked by philosophical and legal challenges to the death penalty.”
In 1972, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Furman v. Georgia led to a de facto moratorium on all death penalty laws in the United States. The case did not declare the death penalty itself unconstitutional, but determined that it was imposed arbitrarily and in a discriminatory manner. Thirty-five states responded to this ruling by modifying their own laws to overcome those criticisms and fit the new court-mandated standard. During this moratorium, hundreds of sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. In 1976, the court ruled 7-2 in Gregg v. Georgia that Georgia’s revised death penalty statutes did not violate the 8th and 14th amendments to the US Constitution, and the death penalty was reaffirmed as a constitutionally protected practice nationwide.
Support for the death penalty gradually peaked at 80% in 1994, the year in which violent crime reached an all-time high in the United States. The number of states where the death penalty is legal peaked in 1995 at 38 states with the addition of New York, but six states (Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Concneticut, and New York) have repealed the practice since then, bringing the current number of states where capital punishment remains legal to 32.
“Along with two-thirds of the American public, I believe in capital punishment,” wrote Steven D. Stewart, Clark County, Nevada prosecuting attorney, on his official website. “I believe that there are some defendants who have earned the ultimate punishment our society has to offer by committing murder with aggravating circumstances present. I believe life is sacred. It cheapens the life of an innocent murder victim to say that society has no right to keep the murderer from ever killing again. In my view, society has not only the right, but the duty to act in self defense to protect the innocent.”
According to Andrew Cohen, contributing editor at The Atlantic, “the numbers may change here or there, the percentages may vary a little, but the truth is that the death penalty in America either needs to be overhauled so that it is fairly and justly applied or it needs to be scrapped altogether as a capricious practice unbecoming a civilized nation of laws.