Death Penalty Opinion in the Post-Furman Years


It hardly takes a scientific, nationally representative sample survey to know that public support for the death penalty in the United States has grown markedly in recent decades. For those who desire empirical confirmation, however, there are many such surveys and attitude polls from a variety oforganizations to convince even the biggest skeptic.

The longest standing survey on death penalty sentiment comes from the Gallup organization. As shown in Figure 1, the Gallup results demonstrate sizable swings in public attitudes toward the death penalty. Support for capital punishment declined during the more liberal 1960s to such an extent that by 1966 its opponents outnumbered its supporters. Since the early 1970s, nevertheless, support for the death penalty has grown to the point where today over three-quarters of the American public say that they favor the use of capital punishment for persons convicted of first degree murder.

The purpose of this Article is not to rehash the apparent fact that the American public is strongly behind the reemergence of capital punishment in the United States. Rather, our intent is to explore factors which may underlie recent trends in public support for the death penalty. This Article will explore the question of whether support for the death penalty is fairly universal across demographic groups in this country or if there are subgroups of the population within which support is still shallow. Further, this Article will explore the question of whether trends in death penalty support can be traced to other trends in American society.

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