The death penalty's moral, ethical, and legal implications have been debated vigorously for decades, leading to a patchwork of policies across the United States. While all other developed countries have done away with capital punishment, the U.S. has not. A YouGov poll conducted in April explores how Americans feel about the practice, including if, when, and how it should be used.
Most Americans support the death penalty's legality, though opinions vary by party, race, and age. Majorities believe the death penalty should sometimes be applicable in cases involving certain grave crimes such as murder and terrorism. When comparing the death penalty to life imprisonment, the former is seen as more cost-effective and more likely to deter crime, but life imprisonment as more humane. Many feel the death penalty is generally applied fairly, yet many also perceive discrepancies in its application based on race, gender, and class.
Should the death penalty be legal?
Most Americans — 62% — believe the death penalty should be legal, including about half of Democrats (51%) and most Republicans (80%). White (66%) and Hispanic Americans (62%) are significantly more likely than Black Americans (45%) to believe it should be legal. People who are 30 or older also are somewhat more likely than younger adults (54%) to believe the death penalty should be legal.
Just one-quarter of Americans (24%) believe that the death penalty is a "cruel and unusual punishment" — a phrase included in the eighth amendment prohibition of certain types of punishments. Most people who believe the death penalty should be legal (82%) say it is not cruel and unusual; most who say it should be illegal (68%) say it is.
Americans are divided on what level of government should set laws on the death penalty: 43% say the matter should be decided nationally and 42% say it should be left to the states. People who think the death penalty should be illegal are more likely than people who think it should be legal to say its legality should be determined nationally rather than by the states (68% vs. 39%).
How often should the death penalty be imposed?
The death penalty currently is authorized in 27 out of 50 U.S. states. When asked to estimate how many states still carry out death penalty executions, 15% of Americans say most or all of them, 18% say half of them, and 39% say some or none of them.
Americans are divided on how often the death penalty should be used: 32% say it currently is not imposed often enough, 29% say it is imposed about as often as it should be, and 16% say it is imposed too often. White Americans are more likely than Black or Hispanic Americans to say it isn't used enough. Americans who are 45 or older are roughly twice as likely as younger adults to believe the death penalty isn't imposed often enough.
Who should be eligible for the death penalty?
Seven in 10 Americans agree that the death penalty should be allowed in at least some cases that involve murder. A similar share (68%) say the same about crimes involving terrorism. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty for rape, when the victim is not killed, is unconstitutional. But 53% of Americans say the death penalty should sometimes be an option in rape cases. Even more (63%) say it should at times be an option in child sexual abuse cases. Fewer than half of people say it should ever be allowed for each of the following: treason (46%), armed robbery (33%), aggravated assault (32%), selling illegal drugs (29%), or having an abortion (19%).
The survey also got more specific on the types of murder Americans think merits the death penalty, asking their opinions on which of four penalties is most appropriate for five types of killing: first-degree murder (planned and intentional killing), second-degree murder (intentional killing without planning), voluntary manslaughter (killing in the heat of the moment), involuntary manslaughter (accidental killing due to recklessness), and felony murder (killing during a dangerous crime). The four penalties were the death penalty, life imprisonment with no possibility of parole, life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, and a penalty less severe than life imprisonment.
The only crime that a majority of Americans (56%) say the death penalty was the most appropriate punishment for is first-degree murder; 23% say it should result in life in prison without parole and 13% say life without parole or something less severe. Three in 10 say the death penalty is most appropriate for second-degree murder and two in 10 say the same about third-degree murder.
In the U.S., there are limitations on which groups of people can receive the death penalty. Fewer than half of Americans say people who are convicted of murder should be eligible for the death penalty if each of the following is true of them at the time of the murder: they have a severe mental illness (22%), they have an intellectual disability (24%), they are pregnant (27%), or they are under the age of 16 (29%) or 18 (36%).
Comparing the death penalty to life imprisonment without parole
Debates about capital punishment often involve making comparisons between the death penalty and what is often considered its closest alternative — life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
In comparing these two options in a hypothetical murder case, Americans are more likely to view the death penalty as cost-effective, as well as more effective at deterring crimes. By a smaller margin, they say it is more just to victims and their families.
Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, on the other hand, is more likely to be seen as humane and less likely to be viewed as a grave injustice. By a wide margin, Americans also are more likely to see it as "more pro-life" than the death penalty.
The jury's role in death penalty sentences
Most Americans (56%) believe a jury's recommendation should carry significant weight in a judge’s decision to impose the death penalty, but should not be the deciding factor; 18% say it should be the deciding factor and 8% say it should have no weight. But many also think another group should be allowed to give input: the victim's family. By a margin of 44% to 37%, Americans say that a murder victim’s family should have a say in whether the death penalty is imposed on a person convicted of committing the murder.
Recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that will allow juries to impose the death sentence in cases where just eight of 12 jurors agree — a threshold lower than is currently in place in other U.S. states. In our survey, respondents were presented with a question explaining how death penalty verdicts are typically approved by juries: In most states, the 12 jurors must reach a unanimous verdict in order to impose the death penalty. Just 19% of Americans agree with the eight-juror threshold in Florida or believe that an even smaller number of jurors should suffice. Four in 10 say all 12 jurors should have to agree; 26% say between 9 and 11 should.
The survey also asked about death-qualified juries — that is, juries that result from the screening out of potential jurors in death penalty cases who are categorically opposed to the death penalty or who would always vote against the death penalty regardless of the evidence presented. More Americans say people with these beliefs shouldn't be allowed to serve on a jury (49%) in a death penalty case than say they should be (30%). By 36% to 25%, Americans are more likely to say that death-qualified juries increase the likelihood of a fair jury than decrease it; 19% say there is no difference.
Death penalty executions
Americans are slightly more likely to say that death penalty executions should be private events (46%) rather than public ones (37%). As for who should be allowed to attend executions, 70% support allowing the attendance of spiritual advisors to the person being executed. A similar share (71%) agrees with the Supreme Court's ruling last year requiring states to allow spiritual advisers to join people being executed in their final moments, so they can speak together and touch each other.
Around two-thirds of people say the family members of the victim should be allowed at the execution (69%). Similar shares say the same about the attorneys (67%) and family (65%) of the person being executed. There is less support for allowing journalists (41%) — and a similarly lower level for citizen witnesses (38%), who are randomly selected members of the public who do not have a direct connection to the case, often included with the aim of ensuring transparency in the process.
There is a great deal of debate about the methods used to execute people who receive the death penalty. Our polling finds that lethal injection is the only method that a majority of Americans (68%) agree should be allowed. There is significantly less support for allowing each of the other methods asked about: electrocution (44%), firing squad (42%), gas chamber (41%), and hanging (34%). Among these five methods, 60% of Americans say lethal injection is the most humane; the next most frequently selected option, firing squad, was chosen by just 10% of people.
By 52% to 30%, Americans believe that people on death row should be allowed to choose their method of execution from a list of approved options.
Is the death penalty fair?
Americans are twice as likely to say the death penalty is generally applied very or somewhat fairly (54%) as they are to say it is applied very or somewhat unfairly (26%). But when asked about whether specific inequalities — by class, gender, and race — exist in the application of the death penalty, many people state that there is unequal treatment.
Most people — 61% — say that poor people are more likely to receive the death penalty than wealthy people who commit equivalent crimes. Only 25% say poor and wealthy people who commit the same crimes are equally likely to receive the death penalty.
Many also think the genders are treated differently: 50% say men are more likely than women to receive the death penalty for equivalent crimes. Just 31% say men and women are equally likely to receive the death penalty under similar circumstances.
Two in five (43%) believe Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to receive the death penalty for an equivalent crime. Only 37% say Black and white Americans who commit equivalent crimes are equally likely to receive the death penalty.
Among people who think the death penalty is generally applied very or somewhat fairly, many say the death penalty is unevenly applied to certain groups: 54% say poor people are more likely than wealthy people to receive the death penalty, 47% say men are more likely than women to receive the death penalty, and 33% say Black people are more likely than white people to receive the death penalty. Overall, 73% of people who say the death penalty is generally applied very or somewhat fairly still say it is unevenly applied to at least one of the three groups (Black people, men, and poor people); 76% say so for inequality in either direction, counting disproportionate burdens on wealthy people, men, and white people.
The morality of the death penalty
Most Americans consider the death penalty for murder to be morally acceptable in all cases (16%) or most of them (40%). When contemplating whether they would want the death penalty for someone who murdered one of their close family members, 62% of people say they would, while 18% say they wouldn't
A majority of people are very or somewhat concerned with "innocent people being executed due to the death penalty" (71%) But a similar share — 74% — are very or somewhat concerned with "guilty people who don’t receive the death penalty going on to murder someone else."
Even though the ethics guidelines of the American Medical Association say a doctor "must not participate in a legally authorized execution," just 30% of Americans think it is a violation of medical ethics for doctors or nurses to participate in death penalty executions. The American Pharmacists Association also discourages its members from participating in executions; 30% of Americans think it is a violation of medical ethics for pharmacists to participate in death penalty executions.
— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article
Methodology: This poll was conducted online on April 17 - 20, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3%.
Image: Adobe Stock (zef art)