New Poll Finds Bipartisan Opposition to Use of the Death Penalty as It is Actually Administered

A new national poll has found that bipartisan majorities of Americans oppose seeking the death penalty against vulnerable groups of defendants who historically have been disproportionately subjected to its use.

The poll, conducted by the Justice Research Group (JRG) November 3 to 5, 2021 and released February 17, 2022, found that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents by margins of more than 30 percentage points opposed the use of the death penalty against people with severe mental illness (click to enlarge graphic), brain damage, or intellectual impairments, and against veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. The poll found pluralities of each group opposed to seeking the death penalty against victims of severe abuse, and Americans nearly evenly split on the propriety of the death penalty for adolescent offenders between the ages of 18 and 21.

“When people think of death row and those who populate it, they may envision the most dangerous and incorrigible, … not the most vulnerable, mentally ill, and impaired,” the JRG wrote in a memorandum accompanying the release of the poll. However, the memo says, those who are actually sentenced to death and executed tend not to be “the ‘worst of the worst’ … [but] the most impaired and vulnerable.” The pollsters said they “wanted to test how public support for the death penalty changes when people are asked what they think about how the death penalty works in reality.”

Presenting the poll results at a February 23, 2022 American Constitution Society/Fair and Just Prosecution webinar on prosecutors and the death penalty, Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham noted that Americans “don’t actually know” who is being sentenced to death. The poll results, he said, are “really important because the American public, it turns out, does not support the death penalty that is actually administered in the United States.”

The Poll Results

The Justice Research Group conducted a national survey of 1,135 likely voters, using a sample representative of likely voters by age, gender, education, race, and voting history. It had a margin of error of ±3 percentage points.

The poll found that 60% of likely voters “oppose [their] local prosecutor seeking a death sentence against a person with a diagnosed mental illness,” compared with 27% who support such prosecutions. Independents opposed capitally prosecuting those with mental illness by a 42 percentage-point margin, 63% to 21%. The margin was 36 percentage points among Democrats (62% to 26%) and 24 percentage points among Republicans (55% to 31%).

Opposition to seeking the death penalty against those “with serious intellectual impairment, for example someone who has an IQ score of 75 points,” was uniformly high. 59% of likely voters, including 61% of Democrats, 59% of Independents, and 58% of Republicans opposed the death penalty for the intellectually disabled or near-intellectually disabled. The margin was by 33 percentage points nationwide and among Democrats and Independents, and by 32 percentage points among Republicans.

Likely voters were even more strongly opposed to seeking death sentences against individuals with a traumatic brain injury. 63% of likely voters, including 66% of Independents, 64% of Democrats, and 59% of Republicans opposed seeking the death penalty in these circumstances. 23% of likely voters, including 19% of Independents, 24% of Republicans, and 25% of Democrats supported such capital prosecutions.

Opposition to “seeking a death sentence against a person who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving their country in the U.S. armed forces” was nearly as high. 61% of likely voters, including 67% of Independents, 63% of Democrats, and 56% of Republicans oppose the death penalty for veterans with PTSD. 25% of likely voters, including 19% of Independents, 25% of Democrats, and 28% of Republicans would support their local prosecutor seeking the death penalty in such circumstances.

Americans opposed “seeking a death sentence against a person who has endured severe physical or sexual abuse as a child,” though less strongly. Likely voters opposed the practice by a 49% to 37% plurality. A majority of Democrats (53% to 34%) and pluralities of Independents (48% to 34%) and Republicans (45% to 42%) also opposed seeking the death penalty in these circumstances.

The most pronounced partisan differences involved whether local prosecutors should seek the death penalty in cases of defendants who were “over the age of 18 but under the age of 21” at the time of the offense. Democrats opposed seeking the death penalty against these adolescent offenders by a 19-percentage-point margin, 55% to 36%. Republicans, on the other hand, supported these prosecutions, 56% to 33%. Independents were nearly evenly split (46% to 45% against), as were likely voters as a whole (46% to 45% in support).

“These results show that the death penalty as it actually works in America is disfavored by voters of all political stripes,” the pollsters wrote. “And they send a strong message to local prosecutors who serve as the gatekeepers of capital punishment.”

Sources

Justice Research Group, NEW POLL: The Modern American Death Penalty Is Massively Unpopular, February 17, 2022; American Constitution Society/​Fair and Just Punishment, Ending State Sanctioned Killings: Prosecutors and the Death Penalty, February 232022