Support for Capital Punishment in the U.S. is Higher than Surveys Indicate

A recent Washington Post poll found that 60% of Maryland citizens support capital punishment with 32% opposed.  But there was a caveat: when respondents were forced to give a choice between life without parole or execution for murderers, Marylanders supported life without parole over execution 49% to 40%.  Opponents of the death penalty have long enjoyed pointing out that support for executions drop when life without parole sentences become an option to putting murderers to death.  However, overall numbers of death penalty support or the more nuanced ones reflecting the life without parole option (from whatever polling agencies), are misleading at best in attempting to gain the public's true and accurate views of capital punishment.
      
Why is this?  How so?  Polling agencies, no matter how reputable, fail to gauge true levels of support for society's ultimate penalty because they seldom take into account specific murder cases.  When they do, support for executions are shown to be significantly higher.  Generic, sterile questions devoid of real life examples to determine levels of death penalty support/opposition will always yield lower levels of support than what actually exists.  There is a significant reality gap between what the polls show, and what is.

For example, in October of 2009 Gallup conducted its yearly death penalty survey and found that nationally, 65% of U.S. citizens favored capital punishment for murder.  Yet, incredibly, when New York City residents were asked a month later if they supported the death penalty for alleged 911 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed if found guilty, 77% sad "yes" while only 18% said "no" (USA Today/Gallup, Nov. 20-22, 2009).  Politically, socially and culturally, NYC is a very liberal place.  It is bluer than blue.  Yet it decisively trumped the rest of the nation in support for the death penalty when a very real incident involving real evil was in play.  And, I might add, one can't be a true foe of capital punishment if an exception is made for a particular individual (granted, a particularly bad one).

Let us look at another example.  In July of 2007, three members of a Cheshire, Connecticut family were brutally slain.  Two men broke into the home of Dr. William Petit and wife Jennifer Hawke-Petit.  For seven hours the family was subjected to a nightmarish horror while at the mercy of the two.  Doctor Petit was viciously beaten but survived.  Jennifer Hawke-Petit was not as fortunate.  The thugs strangled her.  The assailants set the home ablaze and the couple's two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, suffocated in the smoke.  Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky have been charged for the murders and currently await trial.  The prosecution is pursuing the death penalty.

In 2000, a Quinnipiac University poll found 63% of Connecticut voters supported capital punishment with 27% against.  In 2009, Quinnipiac found that 61% of the same state's voters favored the death penalty with 34% opposed, indicating a slight drop in support and a larger rise in opposition over nine years.  Yet in 2007 Quinnipiac found that 73% of Connecticut voters favored the death penalty for the Cheshire suspects if found guilty (CNN, Feb. 1, 2010).  How can 73% of the people of Connecticut support lethally injecting the two killers when only 61-63% of people in the same jurisdiction favor capital punishment?  And again, it bears pointing out that this large majority who favor execution for the perpetrators, live in an overwhelmingly liberal state.

The truth is that many people, who oppose capital punishment, do so in the abstract.  When confronted with real cases involving real victims and murderers, and very specific instances of true evil, a certain segment of the opposing population (highly liberal areas included) discard their niceties regarding academic and perhaps purely philosophical questions on crime and punishment.  Moral revulsion takes over.  This is why if ever a poll is taken, it will show that well over 60% of Maryland citizens will favor the execution of convicted sex offender Thomas James Leggs, if found guilty of last December's abduction and murder of 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell.
A recent Washington Post poll found that 60% of Maryland citizens support capital punishment with 32% opposed.  But there was a caveat: when respondents were forced to give a choice between life without parole or execution for murderers, Marylanders supported life without parole over execution 49% to 40%.  Opponents of the death penalty have long enjoyed pointing out that support for executions drop when life without parole sentences become an option to putting murderers to death.  However, overall numbers of death penalty support or the more nuanced ones reflecting the life without parole option (from whatever polling agencies), are misleading at best in attempting to gain the public's true and accurate views of capital punishment.
      
Why is this?  How so?  Polling agencies, no matter how reputable, fail to gauge true levels of support for society's ultimate penalty because they seldom take into account specific murder cases.  When they do, support for executions are shown to be significantly higher.  Generic, sterile questions devoid of real life examples to determine levels of death penalty support/opposition will always yield lower levels of support than what actually exists.  There is a significant reality gap between what the polls show, and what is.

For example, in October of 2009 Gallup conducted its yearly death penalty survey and found that nationally, 65% of U.S. citizens favored capital punishment for murder.  Yet, incredibly, when New York City residents were asked a month later if they supported the death penalty for alleged 911 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed if found guilty, 77% sad "yes" while only 18% said "no" (USA Today/Gallup, Nov. 20-22, 2009).  Politically, socially and culturally, NYC is a very liberal place.  It is bluer than blue.  Yet it decisively trumped the rest of the nation in support for the death penalty when a very real incident involving real evil was in play.  And, I might add, one can't be a true foe of capital punishment if an exception is made for a particular individual (granted, a particularly bad one).

Let us look at another example.  In July of 2007, three members of a Cheshire, Connecticut family were brutally slain.  Two men broke into the home of Dr. William Petit and wife Jennifer Hawke-Petit.  For seven hours the family was subjected to a nightmarish horror while at the mercy of the two.  Doctor Petit was viciously beaten but survived.  Jennifer Hawke-Petit was not as fortunate.  The thugs strangled her.  The assailants set the home ablaze and the couple's two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, suffocated in the smoke.  Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky have been charged for the murders and currently await trial.  The prosecution is pursuing the death penalty.

In 2000, a Quinnipiac University poll found 63% of Connecticut voters supported capital punishment with 27% against.  In 2009, Quinnipiac found that 61% of the same state's voters favored the death penalty with 34% opposed, indicating a slight drop in support and a larger rise in opposition over nine years.  Yet in 2007 Quinnipiac found that 73% of Connecticut voters favored the death penalty for the Cheshire suspects if found guilty (CNN, Feb. 1, 2010).  How can 73% of the people of Connecticut support lethally injecting the two killers when only 61-63% of people in the same jurisdiction favor capital punishment?  And again, it bears pointing out that this large majority who favor execution for the perpetrators, live in an overwhelmingly liberal state.

The truth is that many people, who oppose capital punishment, do so in the abstract.  When confronted with real cases involving real victims and murderers, and very specific instances of true evil, a certain segment of the opposing population (highly liberal areas included) discard their niceties regarding academic and perhaps purely philosophical questions on crime and punishment.  Moral revulsion takes over.  This is why if ever a poll is taken, it will show that well over 60% of Maryland citizens will favor the execution of convicted sex offender Thomas James Leggs, if found guilty of last December's abduction and murder of 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell.

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