What Sways US Views on Death Penalty ; Americans Favor Capital Punishment by a 2-to-1 Edge - Down from a 5- To-1 Margin in the 1990s, a Time of High Urban Crime

Article excerpt

Americans still favor the death penalty, but their support has waned during the past few years.

Several developments, including news reports of men found innocent who were on death row in Illinois, have apparently shaken the confidence of many Americans in the fairness of capital punishment.

Timothy McVeigh's pending execution has added further fuel to the debate. Mr. McVeigh, convicted of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, would be the first person executed under federal law in almost four decades.

While Americans are often portrayed as ardent supporters of capital punishment, the record shows that at times the public has been sharply divided.

The most recent Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, completed May 3 to 7, found Americans favored capital punishment for persons convicted of murder by more than a 2-to-1 margin. Yet that is down significantly from the mid-1990s, when the margin was 5 to 1.

The Monitor/TIPP poll found capital punishment is most firmly championed by Republicans, men, and whites. Opposition is strongest among Democrats, women, Hispanics, and blacks.

A return to 1937?

Those in favor of the death penalty led by 61 percent to 30 percent. Those results were similar to a 1937 Gallup poll that reported Americans favored the death penalty for murder convictions by 60 to 33 percent.

Yet during the years since 1937, American opinion has swung widely. "It has gone up and down over the years," says Edwin Meese III, who served as attorney general under President Reagan.

Mr. Meese, now a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, told the Monitor: "Particularly heinous crimes, like the bombing in Oklahoma City, tend to increase support for the death penalty. Then when you have news stories raising questions about people's guilt, that has the opposite effect."

The 1960s, a time of antiwar sentiment and a rising counter- culture, saw opposition to the capital punishment reach a high- water mark. At one point - in 1966 during the Vietnam War - more Americans were opposed to the death penalty (47 percent) than favored it (42 percent), the only time that has happened in the long-running Gallup poll.

Then in the 1990s, with violent urban crime making headlines, sentiment swung sharply the other way. Gallup surveys found support for executions reached an all-time peak of 80 percent in 1994. The next year, opposition to capital punishment shrank to 13 percent, the lowest ever.

Since that time, surveys have shown gradual erosion of support for executions. …