June 9, 2007 / 4:05 PM / 12 years ago

Majority of Americans favor death penalty: poll

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The majority of Americans support the death penalty but nearly 40 percent think their moral beliefs would disqualify them from serving on a jury in a capital trial, a poll showed on Saturday.

Pro-death penalty demonstrators Peggy Harris (L) and Russell Braun, both of Terre Haute, Indiana, show their support for the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as they protest in a Terre Haute park, in this file photo from June 10, 2001. The majority of Americans support the death penalty but nearly 40 percent think their moral beliefs would disqualify them from serving on a jury in a capital trial, a poll showed on Saturday. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Conducted for the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that opposes capital punishment, the poll showed 62 percent of those surveyed support executing convicted murderers.

But 39 percent of the 1,000 people questioned in the survey, which had a margin of error of 3.1 percent, said they thought they would be disqualified from serving in a jury in a capital murder case because of their moral beliefs.

“That was higher than we had expected,” the information center’s director Richard Dieter said in an interview.

“That says the death penalty is not as strongly embraced,” he said. “I think that questions its legitimacy.”

The poll also showed about 87 percent believe an innocent person has been executed in the last 15 years, and 58 percent think there should be a moratorium on executions while wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences are investigated.

“This is ... a confirmation of how powerful these cases of innocence have been about using the death penalty presently and in the future. It shows a distancing by the American public from the death penalty,” said Dieter.

“I think we’ll see it used less as people are rightly more cautious.”

But Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a group that generally argues in favor of the death penalty, disagreed.

He said national surveys have consistently shown steady support for the death penalty as a punishment for murder despite an “onslaught” of attacks on it.

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said they did not think reforms would totally eliminate wrongful convictions and wrongful executions.

Since 1973, 124 people have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence was uncovered.

The survey showed a majority of people did not think a possible death sentence would deter potential murderers.

The number of death sentences and actual executions in the United States has been declining, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The 38 states that have the death penalty executed 53 people in 2006, down from 98 in 1999, it says.

Experts have said the drop in the number of executions to a 30-year low in 2006 was due in part to eroding support for capital punishment.

The decline came as many states have struggled with problems related to wrongful convictions and claims that lethal injection causes unnecessary and severe pain.

Amnesty International says China carries out the vast majority of the world’s executions. The rights group says China put 1,051 people to death last year, although it believes the true figure is between 7,000 and 8,000.

China and five other nations — Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and the United States — accounted for more than 90 percent of judicial executions in 2006, Amnesty said in a report earlier this year.

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