The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most Americans support the death penalty. They also agree that an innocent person might get put to death.

The execution chamber in Huntsville, Tex. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

A majority of Americans support the death penalty, even though that level of support has been dropping fairly consistently for about two decades.

However, while there are sizable differences in how various groups view capital punishment — with big gaps divided by gender, race and political views — Americans seem to agree on one thing: There is still some risk that an innocent person will be put to death.

A new Pew Research Center poll found that seven in 10 Americans feel this way, with just a quarter of people saying there are enough safeguards in the system to prevent the execution of an innocent person.

This feeling is remarkably consistent among every group of people, even as there are solid divides found in the way people of different races and with different political beliefs view the system.

Yet regardless of other disputes over the death penalty, everyone seems to agree that the country’s capital punishment system carries with it an inherent risk of executing the innocent. Majorities of every group polled by Pew agreed that there is a danger that this will happen.

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Death penalty opponents point to this danger as one of the main reasons they object to the practice. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said earlier this year he opposes the death penalty because “the ultimate nightmare” is that someone will be executed in error. And because death sentences are handed out as part of a system that ultimately relies on the judgments of human beings — people can, and do, make mistakes — such a failure is “inevitable,” he said.

“There’s always the possibility that mistakes will be made,” Holder said. “Mistakes and determinations made by juries, mistakes in terms of the kind of representation somebody facing a capital offense receives….There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed.”

This concept — an innocent person who is still found guilty and given the most severe sentence possible — is obviously not theoretical. Since the early 1970s, more than 150 people sentenced to death have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Meanwhile, a record 125 people were exonerated in the United States last year, and six of those people had been sentenced to death, the National Registry of Exonerations said in its report.

In Louisiana last month, a former prosecutor publicly apologized for helping put a man who turned out to be innocent on death row. The prosecutor argued that the situation with Glenn Ford, the exonerated man who was eventually released, showed how easily the system could be manipulated by an eager prosecutor and questionable evidence.

“This case shows why the death penalty is just an abomination,” Marty Stroud, the former prosecutor, told The Post last month. “The system failed Mr. Ford, and I was part of the system.” He added: “All it is is state-assisted revenge. We can’t do it. It’s arbitrary, it’s capricious. And I believe that it’s barbaric.”

[How the death penalty continued its slow, steady decline last year]

The case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by Texas in 2004, remains both in the news and in the court system. Willingham was put to death for setting a fire that killed his three daughters. Yet fresh doubts linger in this particular case more than a decade later, as the jailhouse informant who testified against Willingham later said he lied on the witness stand to reduce his own prison sentence. The prosecutor in the case was formally accused of misconduct in court last month.

It may seem odd that so many people would support the death penalty while also acknowledging that innocent people could very well be put to death. Part of that may be accepting the inherent risk that accompanies something as irreversible as death, but a part of it may also simply be that people are not paying that much attention to capital punishment. Executions in this country are generally carried out at night inside heavily guarded prisons with just a small handful of witnesses, so the public rarely takes note of them.

Nearly half of Americans told Pew they think the number of people put to death has remained steady or increased over the last decade. In reality, the number of executions has fallen in recent years, dipping last year to the lowest number in two decades. As we noted last year, support for the death penalty did not really budge after high-profile botched executions, and it was unclear how many people paid much attention to these incidents or the people who were exonerated.

So why do people still support it? Well, most people — a little more than six in 10 — say that the death penalty is morally justified when someone commits a crime like murder. About half as many people say it is morally wrong. The same number of people who think it is morally justified also do not believe that the death penalty can deter serious crimes.

Among people who do support the death penalty, nine out of 10 of them say it is morally justified in cases like murder. That is far and away the largest gap among the four categories viewed in the graphic above, highlighting what would appear to be the biggest gulf between supporters and opponents.

As for who actually supports the death penalty and who is opposed to it: More men support it than women (64 percent to 49 percent), a gap that has grown significantly over just the last four years, as more women have turned against it.

[Meanwhile, Americans don’t like the death penalty as much as they used to]

There is also a considerable divide among people over whether or not the death penalty is racially imbalanced.

A majority of white people support the death penalty (63 percent support, 33 percent opposition), basically a flipped image of the way black people feel about the issue (34 percent support, 57 percent opposition). Hispanic people are more evenly split, but opposition (47 percent) narrowly edges out support (45 percent) among them; they aren’t as opposed to it as black people, but they are not nearly as supportive as white people.

Still, about half of people overall think minorities are more likely to get a death sentence than a white person who committed a similar crime. Death-penalty opponents are very likely to view the system as being racially unfair: Seven in 10 opponents say the sentencing is racially unfair, while about four in 10 supporters say the same thing.

Among black people, these opinions are even more pronounced, as more than three-quarters of black respondents told Pew white people are less likely to receive the death penalty. Meanwhile, white people are split between that opinion and seeing no racial disparity.

This is also the area where the biggest split can be seen based on a person’s level of formal education. While support for or opposition to the death penalty is not that dramatically different for people who have graduated from college versus those did not, college graduates are much more likely to think the death penalty is racially imbalanced (60 percent) than people who did not attend college (44 percent).

Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans to think that white people are less likely to get a death sentence. This has accompanied a big overall shift in the way Democrats view the issue. In 2011, more Democrats said they supported the death penalty (49 percent) than opposed it (43 percent). Now, after a big swing in opinion, a majority of them oppose the death penalty (56 percent), while a smaller number support it (40 percent).

Opinions among Republicans are basically the same over the same period (a little more than three-quarters of them support it), while most independents still support it (a number that dipped to 57 percent now from 64 percent then).

The Pew survey is based on telephone interviews conducted last month.