The 60% to 36% advantage for life imprisonment marks a shift from the past two decades, when Americans were mostly divided in their views of the better punishment for murder. During the 1980s and 1990s, consistent majorities thought the death penalty was the better option for convicted murderers.
The Oct. 14-31 survey was conducted before a Texas state court halted the scheduled execution of Rodney Reed in mid-November. A number of prominent politicians and celebrities joined legal activist groups in lobbying Texas officials to spare Reed amid new evidence that could exonerate him.
Even as Americans have shifted to viewing life imprisonment without parole as preferable to execution, a majority still favor use of the death penalty, according to Gallup's long-term death penalty trend question, which was updated in an Oct. 1-13 poll. That question, first asked in 1936, simply asks Americans if they are "in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder," without providing an alternative option. Currently, 56% of U.S. adults say they are in favor of the death penalty for convicted murderers in response to this question.
Support for the death penalty, as measured by the historical Gallup question, has been steady over the past three years. However, it is down seven percentage points from 2014, the last time Gallup asked the life imprisonment versus death penalty question.
The percentage in favor of using the death penalty has been lower than it is now, most notably during the mid-1960s through early 1970s. A 1966 survey found 42% of Americans in favor and 47% opposed to the death penalty, the only time more have expressed opposition than support.
Growing concerns about states' just application of their death penalty statutes led the Supreme Court to effectively impose a moratorium on the death penalty in the U.S. in 1972. Four years later, when support for the death penalty had climbed to 66%, the Supreme Court upheld revised state death penalty laws. Executions resumed in the U.S. in 1977.
At least six in 10 Americans favored the death penalty from 1976 through 2016, peaking at 80% in 1994, when crime was a top concern for Americans.
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