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Capital Punishment Survey Report

by Theodore Kamis

( Originally submitted as an addendum to my English class term paper, "Capital Punishment on Trial: Which Side Is Correct?" (Instructor: S. Winifred Morgan) at Edgewood College, Madison, WI, on 12 May 1996. )

Background of the survey

According to the Gallup Organization's recent surveys on the death penalty, reprinted in the Bureau of Justice Statistics' 1994 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 77 percent of those surveyed favored the death penalty for those convicted of murder, while 13 percent opposed it. When demographic factors such as the gender, age, education, income, political affiliation, or region of the respondent are considered, similar percentages were found. When the race of the respondent is considered, some differences do emerge: Blacks favor the death penalty by a narrower margin (53% in favor / 31% opposed) than do whites (81% in favor / 10% opposed) (Justice, Table 2.57, p 181).

When Gallup prefaced the question with the estimate that 1 percent of those sentenced to death were actually innocent, and Gallup posed it to those who had favored the death penalty, 74 percent still supported the death penalty, while 20 percent did not. When demographic factors such as the gender, age, education, income, political affiliation, or region of the respondent were considered, similar percentages were found (Justice, Table 2.60, p 184). However, the possible response to each question was limited to yes, no, depends, or don't know. Such a format is quantitative; that is, it merely counts the number of respondents who answer a question in a particular way.

The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago also has conducted surveys in which respondents were asked their opinion of capital punishment. In the General Social Surveys, 1972-1993: Cumulative Codebook, several of the questions were very similar to those asked in the Gallup surveys (Davis and Smith, Questions 81-2, p 137; Question 585, p 647). However, the General Social Surveys did include three additional questions not asked in the same manner as in the Gallup surveys. When respondents were asked how important the issue of capital punishment was to them, nearly 70 percent said that it was either one of the most important (14.14%) or an important issue (55.06%) (Davis and Smith, Question 83, p 137). When respondents were asked how much information they had on the issue of capital punishment, only about 35 percent said that they had at least most of the information that they needed (Davis and Smith, Question 84, p 137). In contrast, when respondents were asked how firm their opinions were on capital punishment, nearly 77 percent said that they were at least "somewhat unlikely" to change their opinions (Davis and Smith, Question 85, p 138).

These data sets were somewhat more qualitative, and confirmed my conclusion that an attempt to measure the depth of public opinion regarding the death penalty would be worthwhile. The death penalty is unique among criminal punishments because it cannot be corrected once it is carried out. Therefore, I decided to conduct a qualitative survey that would attempt to determine how strong the public's opinion of the death penalty was.

Methodology of the survey

The survey was performed in April 1996, was anonymous, and was intended to answer several questions:

5 would equal "Strongly agree"

4 would equal "Somewhat agree"

2 would equal "Somewhat disagree"

1 would equal "Strongly disagree"

3 would equal "No opinion"

I worded the statements so that no one who held an extreme position could answer "5" or "1" to every statement. I intended ten of the statements to show a positive correlation of support of the death penalty. (These statements were numbers: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 19.) If a respondent answered "5" to such a statement, he or she would tend to support the death penalty. If the respondent answered "1" to the statement, he or she would tend to oppose the death penalty. The remaining ten statements were intended to show a negative correlation of support of the death penalty. If a respondent answered "1" to such a statement, he or she would tend to support the death penalty, and vice versa. Should a respondent not respond to a statement, a "3" was entered.

The responses to the negatively correlative statements were then inverted; that is, a "5" was converted to a "1", and so on. The responses of each survey were added, and then converted to a scale whose range was from +40 to -40. A positive number would indicate support for the death penalty, and a negative number would indicate opposition against the death penalty. The larger the total would indicate the respondent's relative strength of opinion on the subject.

To measure the respondent's agreement or disagreement with the questions b) and c) above, responses to several statements were analyzed. For question b) (arbitrariness), nine statements were analyzed: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 15, and 18. For question c) (finality and error), seven statements were analyzed: 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 16, and 17. In addition, responses to each individual statements were totaled. The index scaling for question b) (arbitrariness) was from +18 to -18, and the index scaling for question c) (finality and error) was from +14 to -14. Again, a positive number should indicate support for the capital punishment position, a negative number should indicate opposition, and the amount of the number should indicate the respondent's relative strength of opinion. Although respondents were asked to provide demographic data, I determined that there were not enough responses to perform any reliable analyses based upon any individual demographic category, with the possible exception of gender.

I did attempt to obtain some geographic diversity in the survey. Surveys were distributed in three locations in Wisconsin: Black Hawk High School in South Wayne (46 surveys), Edgewood College in Madison (23 surveys), and the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh (43 surveys). I was not able to obtain a true random sampling at any of these locations. In addition, a control group of surveys were sent to all members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court. In addition, copies of the survey were sent to Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle and Governor Tommy Thompson. The purpose of this control group was to use the presumed expertise of persons who theoretically are more informed about capital punishment than the average person. However, of the surveys sent to members of the control group, none were returned.

In addition, an attempt was made to interview Wisconsin State Senator Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), a member of the Senate Corrections Committee, since he has stated support for capital punishment. Again, the intent was to use the presumed expertise of a person who theoretically is more informed about capital punishment than the average person. However, he failed to provide any further insight regarding his position on capital punishment beyond what he had written in a guest editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal, which was simply to say that retribution was sufficient reason in itself (10/05/96, p11A).

(It is worth noting that, although Fitzgerald is continually writing and sponsoring legislation to institute capital punishment in Wisconsin, he is unwilling to even consider the probability of an innocent or falsely convicted person being executed in Wisconsin as a result of his actions, blithely referring such responsibility to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Link here if you would like to tell Senator Fitzgerald what you think of his utter contempt of his inherent responsibility in this matter (if you write the bill, you must consider the consequences...))

Limitations of the survey

There are several limitations inherent in this survey. First, the sample size was quite small. A typical survey uses a sample of around 1,000 persons. This survey had a sample of 112 persons. Second, despite my attempt to obtain responses from a broad geographic area, the survey did not have nearly as much geographic diversity as a professional survey. Third, the survey was not truly random, so sampling errors were possible. Fourth, the statements which the respondents were asked to respond to may not have been properly correlated to support or opposition of capital punishment. Fifth, many of the persons who responded to the survey were quite young, so an age bias is likely. And finally, despite my best efforts, as well as the efforts of those who helped me in the distribution of the survey, there was no absolute guarantee that the respondents answered each statement truthfully. Sixteen surveys were discarded because of obviously dishonest answers which were indicated by certain signs, including the misidentification of certain demographic data.

I agree that care should be used in interpreting the results because of the problems identified above. However, since support for the death penalty has been shown to be consistent across various demographic groups, the survey should have some value in showing how strong the support for the death penalty is. The survey should also be able to show some response to the two arguments of death penalty opponents - arbitrariness and finality/error. And the problem of how to ensure honest responses in surveys is not unique to this survey, but inherent in all surveys.

Survey analysis

Click here to download the raw data from this survey....

Even allowing for the limitations of this survey, certain results are quite at odds with the results from the Gallup surveys and the General Social Surveys. Given the previous survey results, one could expect support to be stated at around +10 to +20 (on a +40 to -40 scale, with a positive number indicating support for the death penalty, and a negative number indicating opposition). However, the average adjusted total for all respondents in the sample was -13.35. The average adjusted total for the Black Hawk and UW-Oshkosh groups were almost identical, at -11.93 and -11.95, respectively. The Edgewood sample had an average adjusted total of -19.00, thus indicating somewhat stronger opposition of capital punishment at Edgewood than at the other two sampling locations. However, at least slight overall opposition of capital punishment can be presumed.

Regarding the respondents' replies to those statements dealing with the issue of arbitrariness (Questions 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 15, and 18), the overall arbitrariness index, on a scale of +18 to -18, was -7.73. Again, the Edgewood sample (-10.61) showed stronger opposition to capital punishment than the other two sampling sites. Still, the Black Hawk sample site was rated at -6.30, and the UW-Oshkosh site was rated at -7.58. At least a moderately favorable response to the arbitrariness argument can be expected.

And regarding the respondents' replies to those statements dealing with the issue of finality/error (Questions 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 16, and 17), the overall finality index, on a scale of +14 to -14, was -4.35. Again, the Edgewood sample (-6.35) showed stronger opposition to capital punishment than the other two sampling sites. The Black Hawk sampling site was rated at -3.93, and the UW-Oshkosh site was rated at -3.95. A slightly favorable response to the finality/error argument can be expected.

A limited demographic analysis of the data can be made. In a gender demographic analysis (Table 1), female respondents were consistently more opposed to capital punishment than the male respondents. In an demographic analysis by the status of support or opposition of the Christian Coalition (Table 2), support of the Coalition seems to be linked to at least weaker opposition of the death penalty.

Table 1


Adjusted Total

Arbitariness Index

Finality Index


- 11.71

- 7.00

- 3.96


- 14.62

- 8.30

- 4.65

Table 2

Support Christian Coalition? Adjusted Total Arbitrariness Index Finality Index

- 7.09

- 4.95

- 1.59


- 15.88

- 8.92

- 5.52

When analyzing the responses to individual statements, the most surprising result was the overall response to statement number 20: "If an innocent person is executed, the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, and everyone else who could have prevented the execution should be immediately charged with murder".

This statement was intended to have a negative correlation with support of the death penalty. The results were not what I had anticipated. The average response to this statement was 3.93, indicating quite strong disagreement. Even the average Edgewood response was 4.00. Statements 5, 8, 12, 13, and 15 also received quite consistent responses from the respondents.


So what conclusions may one draw from the survey? First, this survey should be repeated with a broader sample. Because of the limitations of the survey, it may not be replicable. However, the overall averages are virtually identical with the overall medians. Therefore, a good probability exists that the samples which were taken did, at least partially, overcome the limitations of the survey.

Second, opponents of capital punishment have an opportunity to educate the 65 percent of the public who only have some of the information on this issue. The opponents of capital punishment have two arguments that are potentially effective; arbitrariness and finality/error. Presuming that this survey is correct, reinforcing the existing tendency of the public to agree with these arguments could eventually influence overall opinion on capital punishment.

However, the opponents of capital punishment have two reasons why they should not be too confident about their prospects. First, the Gallup and General Social survey data, which indicates very broad support for capital punishment, cannot be overcome quickly. Second, the contrast of the data in the General Social Survey between the quantity of information held on capital punishment and the firmness of opinion towards capital punishment raises the possibility that opinions are being formed by intuition or by illogical thinking.

Appendix: Statements analyzed in the survey

(Statements positively correlated with support of capital punishment are in green.)

1) No matter what crime a person is accused of, he or she will always get a fair trial in the United States' judicial system.

2) Jesus did not support the death penalty.

3) Eyewitness testimony is always completely reliable.

4) All murderers should be sentenced to life imprisonment without any possibility of parole rather than the death penalty.

5) If the police arrest someone, they must be guilty.

6) I could not support the death penalty if it could be shown that one falsely convicted person had been executed in the United States.

7) If the police use illegal means to extort a confession from a suspect, the confession is reliable, and should always be admitted as evidence.

8) The standard of guilt in any death penalty case should be that the defendant must be found guilty beyond all doubt.

9) If a person is convicted of a crime punishable by the death penalty, that person should be executed immediately, without any appeal.

10) I would support the death penalty even if it meant that my son or daughter would be executed today.

11) If an innocent person was executed, that means that the state has committed murder.

12) If a prosecutor consistently charges all rich white males who kill with second degree murder, and he consistently charges all poor and minority persons with first degree murder (punishable by death), it is perfectly OK.

13) No person should be convicted and executed based solely upon circumstantial evidence.

14) If a person charged with a crime punishable by death cannot afford competent legal counsel, that's too bad - let him fry!

15) Two persons commit equally horrible murders and were properly convicted. The African American murderer was sentenced to death, and the white murderer was sentenced to prison for twenty years to life. There is something horribly wrong with this result.

16) Capital punishment has a proven deterrent effect on the murder rate.

17) If I had to choose only between eliminating capital punishment forever or allowing one innocent person to be executed per month, I would eliminate capital punishment.

18) If you are white and commit murder, you have far less of a chance of receiving the death penalty than if you were African American.

19) The Christian Coalition is not being hypocritical when it says that it supports the "right to life" while supporting the death penalty.

20) If an innocent person is executed, the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, and everyone else who could have prevented the execution should be immediately charged with murder.

Works Cited

Davis, James Allan and Tom W. Smith. General Social Surveys, 1972-1993: Cumulative Codebook. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, August 1993. Microfiche: West Lafayette: MicroCase Corporation.

United States, Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1994. Kathleen Maguire and Ann L. Pastore, eds. Washington: GPO, 1995.


Linda Colbeck: For distributing the survey at Black Hawk H.S., South Wayne, WI.

Jason Kundert: For distributing the survey at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, WI.

Sarah Cunniff and Angel Hoerz: For providing me with suggestions and comments about the format of the survey.

S. Mary Painter, O.P.: For reminding me about the General Social Surveys, which were useful for the background section of this report, and also for her patience and constructive criticism.

S. Winifred Morgan, O.P.: For her extraordinary grace, patience, and gentleness in providing me with guidance and constructive criticism when I needed it.

E-mail Senator Fitzgerald here - Tell him what you think of his cavalier attitude of human life...

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