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Capital Punishment and Public Opinion

What does the public think about capital punishment in various countries around the world? This paper will examine the outcomes of recent surveys and polls. In Guatemala, a poll on the death penalty taken in Guatemala City, the capital, in June, found that 74% of those interviewed were in favour of the death penalty. 78. 5% supported the execution of two men the previous week, who had been sentenced to death for kidnapping. However only 20. 5% thought that the executions would cause crime rates to fall.

The poll was conducted by the Departamento de Mercado of the Prensa Libre (a Guatemalan newspaper). In Uzbekistan, on 5 December the results of a poll were published in the newspaper ”Vatanparvar”. The aim of the survey had been to ascertain public attitudes to the punishment for terrorism. It was carried out by the Ijtimoiy Fikr Public Opinion Study Centre and was held just before a session of Parliament scheduled to take place on 14 December which was expected to adopt a draft law on the fight against terrorism.

The question the public were asked was what kind of punishment the law should envisage for those citizens of a country who, with weapons in their hands, belonged to organized extremist and terrorist bandit formations which wanted to overthrow the government and change existing social and political systems. 57 per cent said the punishment should be death and 20 per cent said it should be life imprisonment. It was reported that the survey was conducted in Tashkent and all the regions and involved representatives of all sections of the population – residents of towns and villages, women and men, people of different ages and ethnic origin.

In the USA, several national and state polls carried out over the year indicated a softening of support for the death penalty. However one poll – because it was taken nationwide, because it was conducted by both Democrat and Republican polling firms (Peter D Hart Research and American Viewpoint) and also because it was the first poll to specifically ask nationwide about support for a moratorium or suspension of executions – was of particular significance.

The survey was conducted from 18 – 23 August. Sixty per cent of those polled supported the death penalty, 21% were against it and 19% were undecided – a lower figure of support than had been ascertained from similar polls for many years. However other figures were equally significant. Sixty-four per cent of those surveyed wished executions to be suspended entirely until issues of fairness have been resolved.

Support for suspension appeared to cross both parties with 50% of Republicans and 70% of the Democrats questioned being in favour. Other concerns addressed also showed important results. Eighty-nine per cent favoured providing access to DNA evidence in capital cases and 83% supported the provision of qualified, experienced lawyers in cases where the death penalty could be imposed. More than half said it is not enough to require access to DNA testing without also ensuring competent and experienced legal assistance.

Considering studies on this subject, let’s begin with the USA: In June Professor James S Liebman leading a team of lawyers and criminologists at Columbia University published a study (A Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases 1973-1995) based on a search of state and federal court records. It found that two out of three death penalty convictions were overturned on appeal, mostly because of serious errors by defense lawyers or overzealous police and prosecutors who withheld evidence.

The death penalty was imposed in 5,760 cases from 1973 to 1995. The study examined the 4,578 cases among them that were resolved (the remainder were still on appeal when the study ended). The state or federal courts ordered retrials in 68% of the cases examined and in over 80% of the cases which were retried it was determined that the defendant deserved a sentence less than death after errors were corrected, and 7% of those retried were found to be innocent. Only 18% were sentenced to death upon retrial.

A survey carried out in September by The New York Times using government statistics in a state by state analysis, has revealed that over the past 20 years the homicide rates in states with the death penalty has been between 48% and 101% higher than in states without the death penalty. In 10 of the 12 states without capital punishment the homicide rates are below the national average despite having similar demographic profiles to those states which retain the death penalty.

The Study also found that homicide rates rose and fell along roughly symmetrical paths in the states with and without the death penalty, suggesting that the threat of the death penalty rarely deters criminals. In another survey carried out in September, the US Justice Department released the findings of its review of the federal death penalty. The survey showed marked racial and geographical disparities in the application of the death penalty at federal level.

Around 80% of federal death row inmates were from racial or ethnic minorities and such minorities accounted for about three quarters of the cases in which federal prosecutors sought the death penalty. An example of geographical disparities is that just three federal judicial districts, in Virginia, Puerto Rico and Missouri, accounted for nearly a quarter of the 183 cases since 1995 in which the prosecutor recommended that a death sentence be sought. Federal prosecutors in nearly half of the USA’s 94 such districts have never recommended the death penalty.

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