This Human Rights Day, marking the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), we reflect on our findings from multiple public opinion studies on the death penalty. One of the arguments often cited by governments and policy makers for retaining the death penalty is the public support in favour of it. However, is public support for the death penalty so unwavering?
Public opinion myth
The Death Penalty Project commissions research by leading academics to tackle myths and misconceptions around capital punishment, providing accurate data to inform debates and policymaking about the death penalty.
Public opinion on the death penalty is often more nuanced and flexible than initially thought. Going beyond simple ’for or against’ questions typically supplied in public opinion polls, our studies probe beyond the surface to tackle the complexity of public perspectives. We have conducted opinion studies around the world in both ‘abolitionist de facto’ and ‘retentionist’ countries.
A common thread that has emerged from our research is the evident public concern over the risk of sentencing innocent people to death. This concern often leads to diminished support for capital punishment. Our research also showed limited public knowledge about the death penalty.
Our public opinion study The Death Penalty in Kenya: A Punishment that has Died Out in Practice revealed that:
- Concerns over wrongful executions reduced public support for retention from over half (51%) to just 28% of respondents; and
- 61% of respondents, including those that said they favoured retention, thought that ’many‘ or ’some‘ innocent people had been sentenced to death; and
- Only 21% of respondents knew that no executions had taken place in the last 10 years –Kenya is ‘abolitionist de facto’, a country that still retains the death penalty in law but has not recently carried out executions.
A similar public survey Investigating Attitudes to the Death Penalty in Indonesia found that:
- When respondents considered the possibility that innocent people could be executed, public support for abolition dramatically rose from an initial 18% to 48%; and
- 44% of the public felt that the judiciary was only ’sometimes‘ fair; and
- Only 2% of the public surveyed considered themselves to be ‘well informed’ about the death penalty.
Our study For or Against Abolition of the Death Penalty: Evidence from Taiwan found that when considering proven cases of wrongful executions, such as the execution of innocent man in 1997, Chiang Kuo-Ching (江國慶), the percentage of the Taiwanese public who said they strongly opposed abolition fell from 32% cent to just 6%. We also found that there was limited public knowledge on the death penalty and its application in Taiwan. Classified as a ‘retentionist’ country, our study revealed that only a very small percentage (0.2%) of respondents were able to answer four basic questions about the death penalty correctly.
Our report The Public Opinion Myth: Why Japan retains the Death Penalty recorded that the number one concern of people who supported abolition was about possible miscarriages of justice in the death penalty’s application. The study also found that although the Japanese public has high levels of trust in the courts, the public placed more trust in advancement of science, such as DNA tests, to prevent a miscarriage of justice.
Our study, The Death Penalty in Malaysia, used a series of realistic scenarios to gauge the extent to which the public supports the mandatory death penalty. To test the levels of support for the death penalty with consideration to wrongful convictions, we asked respondents to reflect on whether they would still be strongly in favour of the death penalty if it was proven to their satisfaction that innocent people have been executed. The data reveals that the proportion of those still strongly in favour reduced dramatically:
- Support for the death penalty in murder cases fell from an initial 91% to just 33%; in drug trafficking offences fell from an initial 75% to just 26%; and in offences with firearms fell from an initial 83% to just 23%.
We also gained perspective on levels of knowledge the public had on the topic with 53% of respondents said they were not well informed at all on the death penalty and 36% said they were not very interested or concerned at all.
Finally, unlike our other opinion studies, our report Public Opinion on the Mandatory Death Penalty in Trinidad demonstrated strong interest on the death penalty amongst the public; 82% of our respondents said they were very interested in the topic, with only 3% not interested at all. However, although engaged on the topic, knowledge was limited. Almost half, 47%, did not feel ‘very well informed.’ The study also demonstrated a drop in support for the mandatory death penalty in relation to wrongful executions. When respondents were asked whether it could be proven that innocent people had been executed, support diminished from an initial 89% to 35%.
The findings from our public opinion studies in Kenya, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, and Trinidad show that public attitudes towards the death penalty are not as strong as some presume. Concerns over wrongful convictions and the risk of executing an innocent person is a notable factor in shifting public attitudes towards abolition.
Over the past few decades, there has been a formidable global trend away from the death penalty; 75% of the world is now either classified as ’abolitionist‘ or ’abolitionist de facto.’ Last year, six countries either fully or partially abolished the death penalty. This trend continues into 2023. In April, Malaysia took significant steps to restrict the use of the mandatory death penalty and in July, Ghana became the latest country to abolish the death penalty for all ordinary and military crimes.
At The Death Penalty Project, we believe in a future without the death penalty. Capital punishment breaches the most fundamental right for all, the right to life. Not only is it incompatible with human dignity, but it always poses an inherent risk that an innocent person is executed.
Further information on the death penalty and wrongful convictions can be found in our policy position paper on the subject.
Mandatory death penalty – The mandatory death penalty is when a death sentence is imposed automatically upon conviction, rather than a judge or jury deciding whether the death penalty is an appropriate sentence. It means that there is no opportunity for the courts to consider the defendant’s background or the specific circumstances of the case.
Abolitionist – An abolitionist country has abolished the death penalty in law and practice.
Abolitionist de facto – An abolitionist de facto country is defined by the United Nations as one which continues to retain the death penalty in law but has not executed anyone in the past 10 years or more.
Retentionist – A retentionist country retains the death penalty and carries out executions.