Support for death penalty reaches 15-year low: poll

November 16, 1999

CHAPEL HILL -- Support for the death penalty for convicted murderers in North Carolina is at its lowest point since 1984, according to a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill statewide poll.

The Fall 1999 Carolina Poll, conducted by the UNC-CH School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science, asked 714 adult state residents if they favored or opposed the death penalty for murder.

Sixty-five percent of respondents said they favored it, and 19 percent opposed it. Sixteen percent were not sure or had no opinion.

The new poll included that question for the sixth time since 1984. The percentage of North Carolinians saying that they supported the death penalty for convicted murderers has varied from a low of 65 percent in 1984, and again in 1999, to a high of 76 percent in 1992.

UNC-CH students conduct the poll twice yearly under faculty supervision to determine what North Carolinians think about many issues and how their beliefs change over time.

"Although the percentage of persons favoring the death penalty for persons convicted of murder was the same in 1999 as in 1984, opposition to the death penalty was greater in 1984," said Dr. Beverly Wiggins, associate director for research development at the Odum Institute.

In 1984, 25 percent of those questioned said they oppose the death penalty for convicted murderers, while in 1999 only 19 percent expressed that view, Wiggins said. More respondents said they were unsure or didn't have an opinion in the 1999 study (16 percent vs. 10 percent).

"Women and blacks traditionally have been less supportive of the death penalty than men and whites have been, and these differences are very evident in the 1999 data," she said.

The racial difference is the largest, with whites favoring the death penalty compared to blacks by a margin of almost two to one (73 percent vs. 37 percent). The death penalty is favored by significantly more men than women (77 percent vs. 57 percent).

"Support for the death penalty is often thought of as a conservative position, but some of the poll findings contradict this view," Wiggins said. "For example, a greater percentage of college graduates than high school graduates favor the death penalty (70 percent vs. 58 percent). Support for it was lower among those who attend church once a week or more than among those who attend less often (57 percent vs. 71 percent)."

Political party identification was more predictably associated with attitudes toward the death penalty, with 80 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats favoring death for people convicted of murder.

The UNC-CH School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science conducted the Fall 1999 Carolina Poll between Oct. 23-30, 1999. A random sample of 714 adult North Carolinians was interviewed by telephone. The sampling error is plus or minus 4.5 percent for the total sample, larger for comparisons between groups.
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Note: Wiggins can be reached at 919-966-2350 or via e-mail at bwiggins@irss.unc.edu.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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