More Americans Oppose Death Penalty, Says Group

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - Claiming that "public confidence in the death penalty has clearly eroded over the past 10 years," a group opposed to capital punishment released a new survey Wednesday showing that the majority of Americans - 58 percent - would favor a moratorium.

"Whether it is concern about executing the innocent, beliefs that the death penalty is not a deterrent, moral objections to taking human life, or a general sense that the system is too broken to be fixed, the bottom line is the same: Americans are moving away from the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).

The telephone survey was conducted by RT Strategies in March.

Dieter said the "most surprising fact" about the poll results was that "almost 40 percent of the American public believe that they would be disqualified from serving on a death penalty jury because of their moral beliefs.

"That shows a distance or a separation from the death penalty by a fair percentage of the American public," he told Cybercast News Service.

DPIC noted that "jurors in capital cases must be interrogated about their positions on the death penalty."

"If they are opposed to it in all cases, they will not be permitted to serve. The resultant juries look different than society at large because they will have less minority members, less women, and none of those who represent one side on this divisive issue," the group said.

"In a way, the death penalty - at least in these trials - doesn't really represent a broad diversity of America, but only a select part of the country," Dieter said.

He added that the result of this disconnect "is being seen in the fact that executions and death sentences have dropped dramatically in the past six years.

"Death sentences are down 60 percent since the year 2000, which is a very strong indication that people are not imposing it and have hesitancy towards it," he said. "People are not seeing the purpose or the efficacy of the death penalty, or are concerned that a mistake might be made."

DPIC noted that the number of death sentences handed out in 2006 was the lowest since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the legality of the death penalty over 30 years ago.

"The size of death row increased every year from the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 until 1999," the group said. "Since then, the size of death row has decreased every year, despite the fact that fewer people are being executed. In many states, the death penalty has reached a virtual stalemate."

But David Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, questioned DPIC's objectivity.

Muhlhausen compared the results to those of a Gallup poll taken in October 2006.

"[Gallup's] polling shows that an overwhelming two-thirds of the American public favors the death penalty for a person convicted of murder and only 28 percent of the public opposed," he said. "DPIC's numbers appear to not be accurate."

Muhlhausen also took issue with DPIC's assertion that 60 percent of Americans believe that the death penalty does not deter murder.

"For years, social scientists have been saying that the evidence is unclear, but in the last 10 years or so, numerous studies that are using rigorous statistical methods are all showing that the death penalty deters between three to 18 murders for each execution," he told Cybercast News Service.

"So the most recent research is showing a strong indication that the death penalty deters murders," Muhlhausen added.

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