A survey commissioned by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington showed, according to its report, that “…58% of the American population believes it is time for a moratorium on the death penalty…” Actually, what the study shows is that 58% of Americans can be persuaded by the use of data and evidence and one-sided arguments to support a death-penalty moratorium. But the survey doesn’t tell us where the public stands if asked neutrally about a moratorium, and it doesn’t tell us how far the public could be pushed to oppose a moratorium if presented with arguments against it.
This is a good opportunity for you readers of this column to study the actual wording of the survey in question and to arrive at your own conclusions.
The DPIC study received some high visibility courtesy of Newsweek, which headlined its announcement of the results of the poll as follows: “Poll: Americans Want Death Penalty Moratorium.”
The Newsweek article, written by Kurt Soller, went on to say: “A new poll by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that provides analysis on capital punishment, found that 58 percent want a national moratorium on executions.”
The DFIC site itself reports: “ The report, based on a poll by RT Strategies, found that a majority (58%) of the American population believes it is time for a moratorium on the death penalty while the process undergoes a careful review.”
But the 58% figure, as noted, comes only after respondents within the context of the survey have been confronted with a number of arguments and data in support of the idea of a moratorium. I think Newsweek’s headline in particular is misleading. The study doesn’t show that 58% of Americans “want” a national moratorium on executions at all. It shows that 58% of Americans “can be persuaded” to support a national moratorium if and when they are presented with detailed and lengthy arguments about why it is a good idea.
The DFIC did the correct thing and posted the entire survey of which the 58% moratorium question was a part on its website, here. That allows you the reader an opportunity to look at this survey in detail.
The moratorium question itself was number 13 within the survey. It was phrased as follows: “Would you support a national halt to all death penalty executions while the problems that lead to wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences are thoroughly investigated by a blue-ribbon commission?”
Study this question wording carefully. Note that the writers of the question reminded respondents as the question was being asked that there have been wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences. In courtrooms, this is called "leading the witness". What if the respondent had been led the other way, with a question phrased like this: “Would you support a national halt to all death penalty executions even if this meant that convicted murderers of women and children who have had their sentences upheld by numerous courts through years of appeals would sit in jail at taxpayer expense and not have the wishes of juries and the court carried out?”
I’m not suggesting this second wording, of course. But I’m pointing out that the way in which a respondent answers a question can certainly be influenced by the assumptions and information that are presented to that respondent in the question wording.
Plus, Q13 asks “Would you support…” not "Would you support or oppose….” In most instances, it is always preferable to explicitly give respondents both alternatives so as to avoid the presumption that one such response is better than the other.
Furthermore, and this is the more serious issue with the DFIC survey, Q 13 on the moratorium was asked only after the respondents had been subjected to 12 previous questions. And a number of those questions – in essence – presented arguments in favor of a moratorium. There were virtually no arguments or reasons presented in the first 12 questions about why a moratorium might not be a good idea.
The reader should carefully read through these 12 questions that came before respondents were asked about the moratorium. A significant percentage of them present in one way or the other information which focuses on problems with the use of the death penalty and the fact that innocent people are often put to death.
By the time a respondent gets to Q 13 in the sequence, he or she had heard the following:
“As you may know, in recent years many people who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death have been released from death row after new evidence, such as DNA testing shows they could not be guilty of the crime. They have been exonerated of all charges. For example, so many people on death row in Illinois were found to be not guily that the state put a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty until the problem could be thoroughly investigated.”
“...in many recent cases juries have incorrectly sentenced people to death who were subsequently found to be not guilty and released from death row..”
“Do you think there is a good chance, some chance, or no real chance that at least one innocent defendant or more has actually been put to death in error over the past 15 years or so?”
“I will read you a list of reasons people might give for OPPOSING the death penalty…” followed by seven detailed and explicit reasons for opposing the death penalty. [No list of reasons people might give for SUPPORTING the death penalty are read to respondents.]
Then, after all of this, comes Q13 on the moratorium.
The interesting point is that a majority of Americans could in fact favor a moratorium on the death penalty even if the question is asked in a standard, balanced or neutral way. (Something like: “Would you favor or oppose a national halt or moratorium on death penalty executions while its use was being investigated by a blue-ribbon commission?”) We just don't know.
Gallup did ask a few questions about a death penalty moratorium back in 2001. A majority supported a moratorium when asked a question that included a reference to the fact that Illinois had recently instituted such a moratorium. But the same survey found that less than a majority favored a moratorium in response to a question in which arguments both in favor and against a moratorium were presented to respondents.
So I think it’s fair to say that we don’t know exactly which side would win if the moratorium issue was put on a national referendum with strong arguments presented to the public both in favor of it and against it.
The DFIC study does provide useful information if interpreted correctly. It tells us that if Americans are given a great deal of focused arguments about how the death penalty results in innocent people being executed, they (Americans) can be pushed to the point where 58% will agree with a national halt on executions. But that's just one piece of the broader puzzle of understanding where Americans stand on this contentious issue.