Death penalty for murder? Majority supports an alternative, poll says.

Death penalty survey contradicts previous polls showing broad support among Americans for the maximum punishment, but pollsters say the key is giving respondents alternatives.

Sixty-one percent of registered voters said they would favor a punishment for murder other than the death penalty, according to a survey made public on Tuesday.

The poll, conducted for the Death Penalty Information Center, an antideath-penalty organization, found that when offered nonlethal alternative forms of punishment, only 33 percent of respondents supported the death penalty for murder.

The survey results challenge the findings of other polls that suggest Americans support the death penalty by a wide margin. Pollsters said the results can depend on how the question is asked.

The key is having a choice

“We find that when voters have a choice, the majority chooses some alternative to the death penalty,” said Celinda Lake of the polling firm Lake Research Partners.

“This is a complex policy question,” Ms. Lake said in a telephone conference call with reporters. “If given a simple question without choices, they choose the death penalty. But when given real choices they will choose something other than the death penalty.”

The nationwide survey of 1,500 registered voters was conducted in May and carries a margin of error of 2.5 percent.

Respondents were asked which of four statements about punishment for murder was closest to their own view.

1) The penalty for murder should be the death penalty – 33 percent.

2) The penalty for murder should be life in prison WITH the possibility of parole – 9 percent.

3) The penalty for murder should be life in prison with NO possibility of parole – 13 percent.

4) The penalty for murder should be life in prison with NO possibility of parole, AND a requirement to work to make restitution for the victim’s family – 39 percent.

Six percent of those polled said they did not know or declined to answer.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the survey was commissioned for research purposes and was not originally intended for public release. He said the center decided to wait until after the elections to announce the results.

Concerns about death penalty

“I think overall these results show that the American public is ready for a serious discussion on the death penalty,” Dieter said. He said since 2000 there have been fewer death sentences issued and a significant drop in executions.

Among voter concerns identified in the poll were the high cost of prosecuting capital punishment cases and that death sentences were being meted out unevenly and unfairly.

In contrast to the center's poll, a recent Gallup poll reported that 64 percent of Americans support the death penalty, compared with 29 percent opposed.

The question posed by Gallup was: Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?

When respondents were asked about an alternative sentence, support for the death penalty dropped. Forty-nine percent in the Gallup poll favored the death penalty, while 46 percent supported life imprisonment “with absolutely no possibility of parole.”

The Gallup survey also found that 49 percent of Americans feel the death penalty is not being imposed often enough.

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