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The death penalty/capital punishment

Part 1: Alternatives to death penalty.
Overview. Polling results: Years 1989 to 1997.

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bullet "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) condemning a public execution of a woman for adultery." John 8:7, (NKJ)

bullet "Does it make sense for the state to hire murderers to kill defenseless victims on death row, in order to prove that hiring murderers to kill defenseless victims is morally wrong?" Anon.

bullet "Barbarians. That's what we have become. We kill each other and instead of mourning the tragedy we want the state to satisfy our bloodlust by killing the offender...we must learn to deal with these people in our midst - punish them, but do not become them."  Posting to a feedback forum, Detroit News, 1999-MAR-2

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The word "capital" in "capital punishment" refers to a person's head. In the past, people were often executed by severing their head from their body.

Surveys in the US and Canada regularly show that a sizable majority of adults are in favor of the death penalty for convicted murderers. Depending upon the exact question asked, 65 to 80% of adults support the death penalty. In 1984, individuals who give greatest support to capital punishment were found to be older, white, male, rich, urban dwellers, politically independent and religious believers. 1 The percentage appears to increase over time when people perceive the crime rate as increasing.

A serious deficiency of almost all public opinion polls is that they generally ask too simple a question: whether the subject is in favor of the death penalty or not. They rarely offer alternatives to execution in their polling questionnaires. Public support for capital punishment declines greatly when alternatives to the death penalty are considered. 

The Death Penalty Information Center reported in 1993 that "Polls conducted in recent years in California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Virginia and West Virginia all concluded that people prefer various alternative sentences to the death penalty." 2 (Emphasis ours) 

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Virginia surveys from 1989 to 1999:

A poll conducted by the Virginia Commonwealth University in 1989 asked adults in the state: 

  1. "Do you support the death penalty for convicted murderers?"
  2. "Would you favor abolition of the death penalty if the alternative were a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 25 years, combined with a restitution program requiring the prisoner to work for money that would go to families of murder victims?

They found that a majority of subjects surveyed preferred the latter alternative.

The Center For Survey Research at Virginia Tech has conducted a series of annual "Quality of Life in Virginia" polls from 1993 to 1999. They asked the identical questions. The polls showed that support for the death penalty is high in that state, but is slipping. A strong majority of adults has consistently favored the suggested alternative:

bulletPercent supporting the death penalty:
bullet 82.8% in 1996
bullet 79.5 in 1997
bullet 75.4%  in 1998
bullet 74% in 1999

bulletPercent opposing the death penalty:
bullet 13.2% in 1996
bullet 17.1%  in 1997
bullet 20% in 1998
bullet 20% in 1999

bulletPercent supported the suggested alternative:
bullet 56.3 in favor, 37.9 disagree in 1998
bullet 54.8 in favor, 40.5 disagree in 1999 3

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U.S. national poll in 1993: 

The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit agency located in Washington, DC. They noted in a 1993-APR report that:

bullet A national survey in the U.S. was conducted in 1993 by Greenberg/Lake and the Tarrance Group. They revealed that, if given two options, the percentage of Americans who favor capital punishment is:

77% if the alternative is no death penalty.
bullet 56% if the alternative is no parole for 25 years. 
bullet 49% if the alternative is no parole ever. 
bullet 44% if the alternative is no parole for 25 years, and a restitution plan is in place.
bullet 41% if the alternative is no parole ever plus restitution; 44% prefer the death penalty; 15% are unsure.

bullet 45 states and DC have a provision for life sentences without any chance of parole for 25 years.

bullet 33 states have a true life imprisonment provision which excludes the possibility of parole at any time.

bullet Such information is often withheld from jurors in capital cases. "In 23 of the 29 states which utilize sentencing by the jury in capital cases, there is an absolute prohibition against any evidence or argument on parole." Many juries, thinking that the accused might be released in 7 years, select the death penalty.

bullet States which have abandoned the death penalty, on average, have not observed an increase in the homicide rate.

bullet The margin of error in the national poll is ~+mn~3.1 percentage points. 2

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Ohio survey in 1997:

The Survey Research Unit of Ohio State University's College of Social and Behavioral Sciences published a news release on 1997-OCT-1. It described the opinions of Ohioans towards the death penalty. 4 The results were based on a random sampling of 805 English speaking adults who were interviewed by telephone during mid 1997-SEP. They found:

bullet 66% favored the death penalty for convicted murderers; 9% were in favor under certain circumstances; 17% were opposed and 8% were ambivalent.
bullet 46% thought it very likely or somewhat likely for an innocent person to be executed; 47% reported somewhat or very unlikely.
bullet Adults without a college degree were more likely to believe that an innocent person could be executed than were college graduates by a ratio of 50% to 27%
bullet 59% would support an alternative to execution if it involved life in prison without chance of parole and a requirement that the inmate work while in prison with the money going to the victim's family. 31% supported the death penalty in preference to this alternative. An inmate working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, over a 25 year sentence at $3.00 an hour would generate $150,000 for the family of the victim.
bullet Non-college graduates (60%), those under 30 years of age (67%), females (68%), those not married (64%) and African-Americans (70%) were more likely to support this alternative than college graduates (53%), those 30 years old or older (56%), males (49%), those married (55%) and Whites (56%).

The margin of error is less than ~+mn~4 percentage points on these data.

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This essay continues in Part 2.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. J.E. Dison,  "Changing Attitudes Toward Capital Punishment, 1972- 1982," presented to the American Society of Criminology, 1984. Cited in GSS at:
  2. "Sentencing for life: Americans embrace alternatives to the death penalty," Death Penalty Information Center, at:
  3. "Virginians say they want an alternative," at:
  4. Ohio State University Derby Hall, Room 0126, Survey Research Unit, 154 N Oval Mall, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Columbus, OH 43210-1373. Phone: 614-292-6672; FAX: 614-292-6673; Email:

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Copyright © 1997 & 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-DEC-08
Author: B.A. Robinson
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