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California and the West | THE TIMES POLL

Support for Death Penalty Drops Sharply in State

The proportion who back capital punishment has fallen from 78% to 58% since 1990. Residents are almost equally divided on a moratorium.

November 02, 2000|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

Support for the death penalty in California has declined sharply in the last decade, according to a Los Angeles Times poll, but Californians still favor capital punishment by a substantial margin.

The poll found that 58% of those surveyed supported the death penalty, down from 78% in 1990.

In addition, the poll found that state residents are almost equally divided on whether California should put a moratorium on executions--a step that has been taken in Illinois and is under consideration elsewhere. Among those polled, 44% opposed a moratorium, while 42% supported one.

The poll surveyed 1,837 California adults from Oct. 19 to 23 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The decline in support for capital punishment comes at a time when Gov. Gray Davis has voiced firm support for execution "as a matter of deep conviction." He has rejected all three requests for clemency that have come before him since he took office in January 1999 and has repeatedly said he opposes a moratorium on executions.

The poll indicated that Davis' stance has not hurt him with California voters. His approval rating was similar among supporters and opponents of the death penalty. His approval was somewhat higher among those who favor a moratorium on executions than it is among those who share his own view against a moratorium.

The decline in support for capital punishment is in line with similar trends in national polls. In March, a Gallup poll found that 66% of Americans back the death penalty, a 19-year low.

Lance Lindsey, director of Death Penalty Focus, a San Francisco-based group that opposes capital punishment, said he believes that "a large part of the reaction is a backlash to what is going on in Texas," which has executed far more people than any other state--232 since the Supreme Court permitted the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976.

Texas' record has been the subject of considerable scrutiny this year, in large part because 145 of those executions have occurred during the tenure of Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate.

Franklin Zimring, a law professor at UC Berkeley, and Susan Pinkus, director of The Times Poll, said they believe that the shift in opinion reflects growing concern over how the death penalty is administered.

That concern has been spurred by widespread publicity about wrongful convictions in other states and by the decision of Illinois' Republican governor, George Ryan, to declare a moratorium in February. Ryan said he had lost faith in the state's system after 13 death row inmates were exonerated and released from prison in recent years.

California has the nation's largest death row, with 577 inmates, but has had only eight executions since reinstating capital punishment.

On Wednesday, Davis' deputy press secretary, Hilary McLean, reiterated the governor's view that circumstances in California are different from those in Illinois.

"These situations are not equal," she said. "California and Illinois do not have similar processes. California has a rigorous process of appeals. California has provided additional funding for the Habeas Corpus Resource Center," which represents defendants in post-conviction matters. "In the [three] cases that have come before him [for clemency] there has been hard evidence that guilt was not a question."

The Times Poll found that opposition to the death penalty in California was strongest among blacks, with 49% disapproving and 42% approving. Support was strongest among whites, with 66% approving and only 30% disapproving.

Similarly, blacks support a moratorium most--54% to 32%--and whites support it least, with 38% favoring and 49% opposing. Latinos also favor a moratorium, though not as strongly as blacks, while Asians are closely divided, with 40% favoring a moratorium and 43% opposed.

Men strongly favor capital punishment, 63% to 32%, while women favor it by a smaller margin, 53% to 39%.

Of six areas surveyed in the state, support for the death penalty was strongest in Orange County, where 72% approved and 28% disapproved. It was lowest in Los Angeles County, where 51% approved and 42% disapproved.

The Times Poll's finding of a close division over a moratorium differs from a widely publicized statewide Field Poll earlier this year that found 73% support for such a pause. The Field Poll, however, introduced its question about the moratorium by telling respondents that there have been a number of cases in which people have been wrongly convicted and that "a number of religious leaders and others have asked" Davis to impose a moratorium.

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Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Californians' Views on Death Penalty

* Do you approve or disapprove of the death penalty?

All

Approve strongly: 35%

Approve somewhat: 23%

Disapprove somewhat: 12%

Disapprove strongly: 24%

Don't know: 6%

*

*--*

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