04/16/2015 06:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2015

Support For Death Penalty Hits A 40-Year Low, Survey Finds

Support for the death penalty in the U.S. has reached 56 percent, the lowest point in four decades, according to a Pew study released on Thursday.

That number represents a six-point drop from 2011, when the group found that 62 percent of Americans favored the death penalty, and is lower still than the figure from Pew's 1996 survey, which showed 78 percent in support.

The latest results suggest that growing opposition by Democrats is responsible for the overall shift in opinion. Currently, 56 percent of Democrats oppose the death penalty while 40 percent support it. This represents a steep decline in support from the 70 percent of Democrats who favored the death penalty in Pew's survey nearly twenty years ago.

The issue has also become more partisan. When Pew asked the same question in 1996, only 16 percentage points separated Democrats from Republicans on the matter. Since then, while there has been an overall downward trend in approval numbers, the gap between Democrats and Republicans has gradually widened to 37 points, with support among Democrats declining more sharply than among Republicans. Independent support has also declined, although it hasn't moved significantly toward either the Democratic or Republican views.

Wider Partisan Gap on Death Penalty

The survey also provides a more in-depth look at Americans' perceptions of the death penalty. A majority of respondents -- both supporters and opponents -- agree that it is not an effective method of deterring people from committing serious crimes. In addition, a majority concurs that there is a risk of executing an innocent person and that minorities are more likely than white people to receive the death penalty for committing the same crimes. At the same time, a majority of those surveyed agreed that when a crime as serious as murder is committed, the death penalty can be morally justified.

Men are more likely than women to support the death penalty, the survey found, and white people are more likely to do so than minorities.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that publicizes information on the death penalty across all 50 states, 32 states allow the death penalty, while 18 states and the District of Columbia do not. In 2014, there were 34 executions in the United States, with Missouri, Texas and Florida conducting the most executions that year.

Pew surveyed 1,500 adults between March 25 and 29 via live interviews on landlines and cell phones.


  • Lethal Injection
    Until 2010, most states used a three-drug combination: an anesthetic (pentobarbital or sodium thiopental), a paralytic agent (pancuronium bromide) to paralyze the muscle system, and a drug to stop the heart (potassium chloride). Recently, European pharmaceutical companies have refused to sell drugs to the U.S. for use in lethal injections, requiring states to find new, untested alternatives.
  • Gas Chamber
    Gas chambers, like this one pictured at the former Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Mo., were first used in the U.S. in 1924. In the procedure, an inmate is sealed inside an airtight chamber which is then filled with toxic hydrogen cyanide gas. Oxygen starvation ultimately leads to death, but the inmate does not immediately lose consciousness.
  • Electric Chair
    The first electric chair was used in 1890. Electrodes attached to an inmate's body deliver a current of electricity. Sometimes more than one jolt is required.
  • Hanging
    Hanging was used as the primary method of execution in the U.S. until the electric chair's invention in 1890. Death is typically caused by dislocation of the vertebrae or asphyxiation, but in cases when the rope is too long, the inmate can sometimes be decapitated. If too short, the inmate can take up to 45 minutes to die.
  • Firing Squad
    This Old West-style execution method dates back to the invention of firearms. In a typical scenario in the U.S., the inmate is strapped to a chair. Five anonymous marksmen stand 20 feet away, aim rifles at the convict's heart, and shoot. One rifle is loaded with blanks.
  • Beheading
    Wikimedia Commons
    Decapitation has been used in capital punishment for thousands of years. Above is the chopping block used for beheadings at the Tower of London.
  • Guillotine
    Kauko via Wikimedia Commons
    Invented in France in the late 18th century during the French Revolution, the guillotine was designed to be an egalitarian means of execution. It severed the head more quickly and efficiently than beheading by sword.
  • Hanging, Drawing and Quartering
    Wikimedia Commons
    A punishment for men convicted of high treason, "hanging, drawing and quartering" was used in England between the 13th and 19th centuries. Men were dragged behind a horse, then hanged, disemboweled, beheaded, and chopped or torn into four pieces.
  • Slow Slicing
    Carter Cutlery/Wikimedia Commons
    Also called "death by a thousand cuts," this execution method was used in China from roughly A.D. 900 until it was banned in 1905. The slicing took place for up to three days. It was used as punishment for treason and killing one's parents.
  • Boiling Alive
    Wikimedia Commons
    Death by boiling goes back to the first century A.D., and was legal in the 16th century in England as punishment for treason. This method of execution involved placing the person into a large cauldron containing a boiling liquid such as oil or water.
  • Crucifixion
    Wikimedia Commons
    Crucifixion goes back to around the 6th century B.C.used today in Sudan. For this method of execution, a person is tied or nailed to a cross and left to hang. Death is slow and painful, ranging from hours to days.
  • Burning Alive
    Pat Canova via Getty Images
    Records show societies burning criminals alive as far back as the 18 century B.C. under Hammurabi's Code of Laws in Babylonia. It has been used as punishment for sexual deviancy, witchcraft, treason and heresy.
  • Live Burial
    Antoine Wiertz/Wikimedia Commons
    Execution by burial goes back to 260 B.C. in ancient China, when 400,000 were reportedly buried alive by the Qin dynasty. Depending on the size of the coffin (assuming there is one), it can take anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours for a person to run out of oxygen.
  • Stoning
    Wikimedia Commons
    This ancient method of execution continues to be used as punishment for adultery today.
  • Crushing By Elephant
    Wikimedia Commons
    This method was commonly used for many centuries in South and Southeast Asia, in which an elephant would crush and dismember convicts as a punishment for treason.
  • Flaying
    Michelangelo/Wikimedia Commons
    Records show flaying, the removal of skin from the body, was used as far back as the 9th century B.C.
  • Impalement
    Wikimedia Commons
    Records show this execution practice used as far back as the 18th century B.C., where a person is penetrated through the center of their body with a stake or pole.