The death penalty is normally cited as the classic example of disconnect between politicians and the people they represent, one where a majority of MPs consistently oppose the death penalty and a majority of the public consistently support it. This is pretty much true (whether it is a good or bad thing is an entirely different matter!)

Support for the death penalty has fallen over the decades – it used to be over 70%, these days roughly half of the population support the death penalty for “standard” murder – indeed there was a YouGov poll in 2006 that showed marginally less than half of people in support of it, the first time it had occured. More recently, a YouGov poll in September 2010 found 51% supported the death penalty for murder, 37% opposed. A MORI poll in July 2010 found 51% supported the death penalty for adult murder. An Angus Reid poll in 2008 found people supported the death penalty for murder by 50% to 40%.

Support for the death penalty is higher for specific crimes, such as murder of a police officer, murder of a child or multiple murders. The MORI poll in July 2010 asked people which of a list of crimes they thought should have the death penalty – 62% supported it for child murder (and 70% supported in at least some circumstances). A YouGov poll in November 2010 found 74% of people supported the death penalty for murder in some circumstances, though only 16% supported it for all murders.

If we go all the way back to 2003, a YouGov poll asked people if they supported the death penalty in various circumstances of murder. 57% supported it for murder , 62% for murder of a police officer, 67% for the murder of a child, 69% for a serial killer (note that the figures may be slightly higher than more recent polling because of the timing of the poll, conducted just after the Soham murder trial – 63% would have hanged Huntley).

So, generally speaking about half of people support the death penalty for murder, with slightly more than that typically supporting it for particularly circumstances of murder, such as that of children or police officers. Support for the death penalty tends to be strongest amongst Conservative voters, but Labour supporters also tend to be more likely than not to support it (Liberal Democrats tend to oppose). There is a strong class divide – middle class respondents are much less likely to support the death penalty than working class respondents.

Looking at the other end of the comparison, what about MPs? Historically the House of Commons voted on the death penalty rather a lot, up until the 1990s there was usually one vote per Parliament on whether the death penalty should be restored. Over time, these were defeated by solid majorities.

In 1994 the last attempt to reintroduce the death penalty was rejected by 403 to 159. The death penalty for the murder of a police officer was rejected by 383 to 186. Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs voted solidly against, while Conservative MPs were split (a typical pattern on death penalty votes) – 122 voted against, 148 in favour. If there is a similar pattern amongst current MPs (Labour and Lib Dem MPs solidly against, Conservative MPs split pretty evenly) then a large majority of MPs will oppose the death penalty.

UPDATE: Tonight’s YouGov/Sunday Times poll has voting intention of CON 35%, LAB 44%, LDEM 10%, so still very much in line with the Labour lead of 8 points or so YouGov have been showing.


166 Responses to “Public opinion on the death penalty”

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  1. My brother was murdered in 98 and I can tell you despite that nothing would persuade me to support the state taking another’s life.

    The issues:

    -death penalty will not bring back the victim

    -executing the wrong person (even DNA and other expert evidence can be wrong)

    -death penalty is not a deterrent as the evidence from the US shows .Murders are committed either in the heat of the moment where there is no assessment of the consequences or in cold blood where the murderer thinks they won’t get caught.

    -death penalty will make juries less likely to convict and go for manslaughter (see US again)

    -the media circus surrounding the appeal process and execution wold cause huge distress to the relatives

    -what message are we sending out about the sanctity of human life if we sanction cold blooded judicial murder.

    So that leaves ‘vengeance’ as the only reason which is pretty pathetic really.

    I am lucky the killers are still in Prison despite passing the minimum period of detention 10 and 12 years respectively and look to stay a while yet .Our views on their continued detention are continually sought.I am satisfied with the present system.

  2. @ Richie Daw

    Thank you for making your comment. There is really nothing for those who are against the death penalty to add – you have effectively said it all.

    Sympathy from a stranger is all I can offer in return; I am sorry about what happened to your brother, it must be awful for you & your family.
    8-)

  3. Anthony,

    Are they not hanged until dead as poosed to hung drawn and quartered….when like a piece of meat you hung until semi-asphixiated before your entrails were drawn and burt before your eyes…..

    I’m curious though …if this might be push polling….but through most of the 70s for example terrorists were thought of as suitable persons to be hanged.

    But I wonder how the public feel if reminded of the number of times the guilty have been legally subsequently found innocent….and such cases aren’t limited to quasi political trilas of IRA suspects….

    Is there an polling evidence to see if that changes percentages?

  4. @AMBERSTAR

    Thanks appreciated

  5. Aside from the many sound reasons to be against listed above by RICHIEDAW, people should remember that permanent incarceration can be a “fate worse than death”. Ian Brady clearly cannot bear it and we can be sure that Ian Huntley, Roy Whiting, and the like are not having a pleasant existence right now.

  6. @RichieDaw – While the views of someone who is emotionally linked to the subject, should usually be politely acknowledged but put to one side as bias. Your own views on this are a welcome reminder that people who have suffered so much, can put a very solid and well thought out point across in these matters.

    I, like yourself, think exactly the same way (although I feel our prisons perhaps are not punishment enough) and that vengeance murder (which is what it is), is not a way for our society.

    Of course the debacle of when murders are let out is another story.

    (i hope that didn’t come across badly, as it was not my intention)

  7. John – yes, it’s hanged not hung!

    On the other thing, it certainly wouldn’t be “push polling”, push polling is something completely different (direct negative political marketing masquerading as polling), it does not refer to a biased poll.

    What you’re suggesting would be a very biased way of asking the question though, just as it would be if you prefaced the question with a list of particularly emotive crimes. It would almost certainly change the percentages… but all it would tell us is that biased questioning changes results!

  8. I think Richie Daw has eloquently made most of the points against the death penalty. I’d just add two things from personal experience.

    Firstly I remember the last time there was a chance of abolition being reversed – and lets face it, if Mrs Thatcher couldn’t get it reversed with an enormous majority, Cameron can’t with none even if he wanted to. A lot of people moved from being in favour to being against when they actually had to consider in which cases the death penalty should actually apply.

    The complexities of when it should be applied in real life (and distrust of the Courts getting it right) meant that in the end they felt abolition was safer, even if they felt in ‘some’ circumstances the death penalty was justified. I suspect for this reason polls always over-estimate support for the death penalty.

    Secondly, not even relatives and the police always feel the Courts get it exactly right. A few years ago a close friend had her nephew murdered. The family believed that the person convicted as an accessory to the murder was actually more responsible than the person who carried out the act. As it happens the recommendations will probably mean they serve similar sentences, but if it was ‘death for all murders’ they would have felt the ‘wrong’ person was executed.

    Incidentally, like Richie Daw they had nothing but praise for the support they have received from the police, even though the murder took place in England and the family were in the Isle of Man (and Ireland) and so legally in a ‘foreign’ country.

  9. John Murphy

    ‘But I wonder how the public feel if reminded of the number of times the guilty have been legally subsequently found innocent….and such cases aren’t limited to quasi political trilas of IRA suspects….’

    Which were the subsequent appeals where the IRA suspects found ‘guilty’ of murder were found ‘innocent’?

    I think it a good thing that this subject is debated, and if this means that the majority come to believe that the death penalty is inappropriate all the better.

    However, I feel uneasy when the ‘guardians of our mind’ make decisions that seem to conflict with what most people want. I would like to see a referendum, and before which a thorough public debate on murder, and what action is appropriate. I believe that if this occurred then most people would vote against the death penalty; however they may vote for stiffer sentences.

    Old Nat has pointed out that it would not be possible because of European Court of Human Rights and also EU for UK to re-introduce the death penalty. I would accept this if there was say a EU wide referendum and the majority voted for no capital punishment.

    If there was a vote tomorrow I would vote against a death penalty, and also vote against leaving the EU.

    However, I would like to see citizens given the right to vote on these matters. The arguement that ‘Henry you are against the death penalty and against leaving the EU so why have a referendum that you may lose’, is not something I agree with.

    I know a large number of posters disagree with my comments above and it is always interesting to listen to their reasons.

  10. In addition to the reasons supplied by Richie, there is another one, which I believe is something the police and courts often emphasise:

    -If all murder results in the death penalty, then after a murderer has killed someone he may realise he is going to be caught and thus he has nothing to lose (i.e no chance of being released in 20+ years etc) if he goes and kills *more* people.

  11. Whilst on balance I would nowadays probably anti death penalty if I had to vote on it, I do think that sentencing needs to become much more honest. How 7 or 10 years can be regarded as a life sentence is beyond me. I would be very much in favour of the sentence handed down is what is served. In other words life should mean life. If the judge doesn’t want that to be the case then he should hand down a minimum sentence stipulated in years but don’t call it life. It is dishonest.
    And yes, a picture is hung and a person is hanged. One of the rules of english that was drummed into me at my 60’s secondary school.!

  12. IMO the main reason why so many people would like the death penalty to be re-introduced is that they feel that our current justice system deals with murderers too leniently. If prison sentences were longer and prisons more harsh, the numbers wanting the death penalty would fall.

    I’m somewhere between the two. I loathe the death penalty and disagree with it totally from a moral point of view. However, like many other people, I believe that our justice system will continue to be watered down over time, with murderers getting progressively shorter and shorter sentences. The trend is certainly for ‘rehabilitation’ – even in the case of violent and evil murderers.

    Having said all that, when asked the question, I always opt for the vote against re-introducing the death penalty. Instead, we should push for longer sentences. Life should mean life!

  13. By the way, when we’re talking of gory details, according to Wikipedia death by beheading for treason wasn’t actually abolished in the UK till 1973. This shows a positively Manx affection for obsolete laws – Wikipedia also says (correctly) that we last sentenced someone to death in 1992. Despite not actually executing anyone since 1872.

  14. Does anyone know if Emmet was the last man to be hung, drawn and quartered in the Uk: 1803?

    Who knows the story of Kevin Barry’s hanging, age 18?

  15. what RichieDaw said

  16. Roger Mexico

    Typo 1972?

    I’m old enough to remember the last stages of the debate before it was abolished.

    In Scotland, with the Not Proven verdict and “diminished responsibility” plea, you were 13 times more likely to hang if charged with a capital offence in England than in Scotland, and every case was the cause of a public debate and last minute appeal for clemency.

    The softest softball I ever saw bowled to a politician was when the hanging issue was put to the then SNP leader John Swinney. Before he could answer, the interviewer (Bernard Ponsonby), picked out of the audience a campaigner on behalf of a man jailed for murder, whose conviction was challenged.

    So long as there are articulate people around who have been let out of jail for former capital offences on new evidence, any proposal for change is likely to be defeated.

  17. John B Dick

    Nope. 1872. Over one hundred years of pretending to be reactionary while actually getting every sentence commuted to Life.

  18. Thanks for all the supportive comments.

    Just to add a point re a popular misconception that Murderers get sentences of around 7-10 years .

    Thats not true when a Murderer is convicted they have to be sentenced to life thats mandatory .The trial judge then makes a recommendation re the minimum period of detention should be applied in that case (depending on the circumstances ) .Typically the average figure is 12 years .Figures less than that are rare and are typically where the circumstances are unusual (e.g a mother killing a child )

    As in our case the minimum period is not the point at which the prisoner is released .Release depends on a Parole Board who consider the feelings of the victims relatives ,the risks to public safety and the remorse the murderer has shown (they must admit their guilt).

    If released the sentence remains in force for the whole of their life and any transgression of the conditions of release (e.g they will be restricted where they can live geographically) or commiting another offence will mean recall to Prison.

  19. Restoring the death penalty is clearly not the answer, a better move would be to make sure that ‘life means life’ for murder, not 10-20 years. The death penalty is one of those issues where I am just implacably opposed, hope I am not the only Conservative to feel this way!

  20. Chris Lane – I think Emmet was the last person to be executed with a sentence being hanged, drawn and quartered… though in practice they just seem to have hung and beheaded him.

    The Cato Street conspirators got sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in 1820, but they seem to have had their sentences formally commuted to being hanged and beheaded. The leaders of the Newport Rising in 1839 were also sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but their sentences were commuted to transportation.

    John B Dick – 1872 was the last execution on the Isle of Man. Clearly there are more recent executions in the UK.

  21. Sunday Times YouGov on Twitter:

    Lab 44%, Con 35%, LD 10%.

    If so that would be YouGov’s second 9% Labour lead this week Lin Rees (which day the last one was, I can’t remember).

  22. All the sentiments on this site seem to be one way, so here are a few arguments in favour of capital punishment, just to have some kind of debate.

    1) Many murderers are repeat offenders. e.g. serial killers, gangsters or habitually violent people. The death penalty makes sure they won’t do it again.
    2) In relation to the above, more innocent people are killed by released murderers than were ever wrongly executed.
    3) If the majority of the people want it, it should happen, or if not then let’s at least drop the pretence of being a democracy.
    4) It’s cheaper to execute them than keep them incarcerated whether for a few or many years.
    5) It’s not about vengeance, it’s about protection of the public. At present, many murderers are released after just a few years thus putting the public at risk. If, as some have suggested, life sentences should mean life, then they have nothing left to lose, and thus prison officers and fellow inmates are more at risk.
    6) I don’t think many would suggest an automatic death penalty for all murder. E.g. a wife stabbing a brutal husband should be treated more leniently than someone who rapes a baby to death for instance.

  23. The YouGov poll quoted for 2010 also states, quote “Sample Size: 2651 Adults” from a population of approx 60,356,419.

    Not even vaguely representative. I have seen adverts for shampoo that use a larger sample size.

  24. YouGov Sun 26th July:

    Con 35%, Lab 44%, LD 9%;
    App -28.

  25. Bob Walsh –

    Too Frequently Asked Questions

    (Or the version that explains it at length – FAQ – Sampling)

  26. Whenever I’ve been involved in discussions on this there have usually been people who support the death penalty and claim willingness to volunteer to pull the lever to hang the guilty. My response is always to ask if they are just as willing to volunteer to hang the innocent, which as we know, happens on occasions with murder cases. I have some personal views on the morality of the death penalty, but the finality of a death sentence is the key question that tends against it’s use in my views.

    I’ve always thought that ensuring convictions for the guilty and guaranteeing that criminals would not benefit from crimes are always going to be the best ways to combat any crime, including murder. Capital punishment is a bit of a red herring in terms of making us safer.

  27. @ Pete B

    None of your points support death penalty.

    All of your points support the situation when the public (not some judge) has the right to decide if the person is allowed in the society (or has to find another society for himself/herself). That would be quite a revolution in England.

  28. I would like to thank you Richie for your contribution, with which I couldn’t agree more. Although it is 13 years since your brother was murdered, it is stil a dreadful bereavement and you have my total sympathy.

  29. @PeteB

    1) If the death penalty accidentally kills the wrong person, is the real killer honour bound not to kill again?

    2) Is it okay to kill innocent people in order to theoretically prevent future murders?

    3) It’s cheaper to sell Orphans into slavery rather than pay for their upkeep. Can we do that now?

    4) Since it’s about protecting the public, deaths caused by traffic offences exceed those caused by homicides, so we’re going to be executing people who put others at risk by driving then?

    5) If the majority of people wanted to chop of your limbs one by one. Burn out your private parts. And then behead you. Is that Okay?

    6) Will there be a phone-in-vote to decide which convicts are the most deserving of leniency, or shall we leave it all up to a single person?

  30. Laszlo

    Perhaps English is not your first language, but how does the statement “It’s cheaper to execute them than keep them incarcerated whether for a few or many years.” for instance not support the death penalty?

    You are entitled not to agree with the point, but it is an argument in favour of the death penalty whether you agree with it or not.

  31. Jayblanc
    I assume that you are trying to be humorous in some cases.
    You point 1 is meant to be a joke?
    Point 2, no but society should be able to choose to take the risk of occasionally executing the wrong person in order to provide a deterrent and to save the lives of innocent people killed by murderers released from prison.
    Point 3. Humorous again?
    Point 4. Why not? For dangerous driving, rather than accidentally causing death.
    Point 5 If I was a criminal and guilty of a crime for which that was the prescribed punishment – yes.
    Point 6 Humorous?

  32. Pete B

    I know most most of your points are for discussion (and most of them can be replied to with a simple request for the ‘evidence’). However with respect to point 4 it’s worth noting that there is a campaign to abolish the death penalty in California, because it costs too much. See this LA Times story for details:

    http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jun/20/local/la-me-adv-death-penalty-costs-20110620

    Of course if cost is really an issue, maybe the solution is to let them out immediately, and then hope that next time they do away with someone from the long list of categories that the government keeps on telling up ‘cost too much’

  33. Pete B

    Well my first language is English, but you’d never know it this time of night. My comment should have read:

    I know most of your points are for discussion rather than serious arguments and most of them can be replied to with a simple request for the ‘evidence’.

    However with respect to point 4, it’s worth noting that there is a campaign to abolish the death penalty in California, because it costs too much. See this LA Times story for details:

    http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jun/20/local/la-me-adv-death-penalty-costs-20110620

    Of course if cost is really an issue, maybe the solution is to let them out immediately, and then hope that next time they do away with someone from the long list of categories that the government keeps on telling up ‘cost too much’

  34. Pete B

    “society should be able to choose to take the risk of occasionally executing the wrong person in order to provide a deterrent and to save the lives of innocent people killed by murderers released from prison.”

    this is where we need a constitution or the human rights act to make damn sure that nobody is able to take such decisions on behalf of a “majority”.

    No, “society” (whoever she be) should NOT be able to take such a risk with some poor sap’s life.

  35. RogerMexico
    OK, I’ve read that, and it seems that the cost is so high because of their lengthy appeals process and the lag between conviction and execution of an average of 17 years! Most of our “life imprisonment” terms are shorter than that. Their system seems to give what we would call a life sentence followed by execution. There is no reason that our system would have to be like that.

    Also of course, cost is simply a minor supporting argument, but what has been the point of keeping Ian Brady incarcerated ever since his crime for instance? I have heard the argument advanced that such a sentence is better because the prisoner suffers more than from a quick execution. If that is true, then the death penalty is more humane, and should therefore appeal to liberals (small l).

  36. By the way, I thought the “deterrent” idea was discredited years ago. No evidence at all that a death penalty is any deterrent (see USA).

    I suspect the opposite. Brutality of the state breeds brutality of the citizen.

  37. Pete B

    Point 2, no but society should be able to choose to take the risk of occasionally executing the wrong person in order to provide a deterrent and to save the lives of innocent people killed by murderers released from prison.

    Would you feel the same if it was your son,

  38. @Nick Poole
    “No, “society” (whoever she be) should NOT be able to take such a risk with some poor sap’s life.”

    But it’s ok to release murderers on to the streets after a few years, thus potentially putting many ‘poor saps’ lives at risk?

    Let’s get real. It’s a tough old world out there. Society is not made up of tree-hugging kind-hearted vegetarians. There are many vicious and evil people around who must be effectively punished in order to protect the vulnerable.

  39. Roger Rebel
    “Would you feel the same if it was your son,”

    Of course not, but would you feel the same if your son was killed by someone who had been released from prison after a ‘life’ sentence for murder of about 10 years?

  40. Other than religious teachings such as Deuteronomy “Have no pity; let life be given for life”, there is no obvious reason why capital punishment should be restricted to murder. Indeed, for many centuries it wasn’t. In 16th century Scotland (as in other places then and some places now) blasphemy and adultery were also capital crimes.

    Of course, unless people cling to religious teachings such as Deuteronomy , there is also no obvious reason why capital punishment should be used for murder either.

    If (as the Mail is reporting) Chilcott is going to severely censure Blair for the Iraq war, and the huge number of deaths involved in that, then those arguing for the death penalty might have another case to consider.

    That wasn’t a partisan point btw. Morality should have some vague relationship to law and justice, and morality requires that moral rules be applied with some consistency.

  41. “No, “society” (whoever she be) should NOT be able to take such a risk with some poor sap’s life.”

    But it’s ok to release murderers on to the streets after a few years, thus potentially putting many ‘poor saps’ lives at risk?

    that is a complete non sequitur. Why does not having the death penalty mean that murderers have to be released after a few years?

  42. Oldnat
    I totally agree. Blair is a war criminal in my humble opinion. There was no legitimate reason for attacking Iraq in the second Gulf War. Or at least, it is a case that should be argued in court.

  43. Nick Poole
    “Why does not having the death penalty mean that murderers have to be released after a few years?”

    Because that is what often (usually?) happens now. The death penalty is one alternative to that. What is yours?

  44. The “Would you feel the same if it was your son” argument has little validity on either side of the discussion.

    Laws exist to ensure that society decides on appropriate sanctions against offenders – not the victim. Sharia law still allows the victims family a significant role though less benevolently than in the case that RichieDaw so movingly describes.

    If someone murdered my daughter, I would probably have an atavistic wish to take revenge, but the law quite rightly prevents me doing that.

  45. Pete B

    let me know when Sutcliffe or Brady get let out and I’ll join you in insisting they stay locked up.

  46. Pete B

    That wasn’t the argument I was making re Blair.

    I have my own strong views on him and Iraq (!) but my point was that those who advocate the death penalty when one individual kills another individual should also be arguing for the death of all politicians/leaders who wage wars (as with individuals, an argument of self-defence would be a mitigating or exculpatory one ).

  47. Pete B

    I am deeply shocked by your lack of patriotism. Are you saying that British lawyers couldn’t drag things out as well as Californian ones? Shame on you, Sir!

    As far as ‘the death penalty is more humane’, well you can be a liberal sadist you know! Actually I think that in some cases the death penalty does let some people ‘get away with’ their crime, rather than face the consequences and results of what they have done. In that case I think those supporting the death penalty are sometimes conniving with the ‘live fast, die young’ mindset.

    OldNat

    Scotland were clearly amateurs. According (again) to Wikipedia in England:

    at its height the criminal law included some 220 crimes punishable by death, including […] “strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age”

    Admit it, when you were teaching you must have been tempted.

  48. Pete B

    I believe that a murderer should get life in prison and it should be life, then mistakes like Timothy Even could be put right.

  49. Roger Mexico

    When we were (at last) doing away with corporal punishment, there were many suggestions that capital punishment would be a better alternative! :-)

  50. If the state kills people, then that legitimises the action of killing. The result is a society where killing is seen as legitimate, and if killing is legitimate then pretty much everything else is. The effect is to encourage and legitimise those who are inclined towards physical violence.

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