Death Penalty: Thumbs up or thumbs down? IN PARIS in support of Troy Davis, prior to his execution last week. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.The state executions of Troy Davis (Georgia) and Lawrence Brewer (Texas) reignite the national debate about capital punishment. Attitudes toward the two men differed sharply. Many felt that Davis may have been innocent—at least, some witnesses who helped to convict him have changed their stories and some of the evidence against Davis now seems less certain. In contrast, far fewer people supported Brewer prior to his execution. Brewer was a white supremacist who was convicted along with two other men in the 1998 murder of James Byrd by dragging Byrd behind a pickup truck.
Today, I’d like to raise the issue in general and take the pulse of the OurValues community:

Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?

If you say yes, you are in the majority. About two-thirds of Americans support the death penalty for murder convictions, according to Gallup. Public opinion about the death penalty is one of those rare areas where we have data that goes back a long time, allowing us to examine attitudes since the 1930s.

Do you think Americans are more or less in favor than in the past?

Going back to the first Gallup poll on this item, 1936, we find that Americans then and now are about the same: In 1936, 59% favored the death penalty for a person convicted of murder, compared to 64% in 2010. Since the 1930s, public opinion has risen and fallen. There were only four times when public support of the death penalty dipped below 50%. These were 1957, 1965, 1966 and 1971. In all other years, a majority of Americans have said thumbs up to the death penalty.

When was the highest level of support?
That was 1994, at 80% approval. This was the peak of an upward trend during the previous 10 years.
How about the lowest level?
That was 1967, with 42% saying thumbs up.

Since 2009, support for the death penalty has been in the mid to upper 60th percentile, with a peak of 70% in 2002 and again in 2003. It’s interesting that attitudes about many controversial issues have been liberalizing over time, but there is durable support for the death penalty.

So, tell us today …

Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?

What do you see in these trends since the 1930s?

Originally published at, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.

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