LOS ANGELES - An overwhelming majority of California voters of every ethnic group supports the death penalty, according to a newField Poll released Thursday.
“It’s fairly rare to see an issue that enjoys support across partisan groups, age groups, and ethnic demographics,” said the poll’s director, Mark DiCamillo. “The death penalty is one of those issues.”
Seventy percent of voters statewide favor capital punishment, with Chinese Americans expressing the strongest support (76 percent), followed by whites (71 percent.)
Among Latinos, 69 percent said they approve of state-sponsored execution; among blacks, the figure was slightly lower but still decisive—63 percent. Support was lowest among Vietnamese Americans (55 percent) and Korean Americans (54 percent).
Interestingly, the younger the voter, the greater the support: overall, 73 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they back the death penalty, versus 66 percent of people 65 and older.
“When black folks see a story about DNA evidence proving someone’s innocence, they’ll say they’re against it, but most of the time when they see someone being executed, they assume they’re guilty,” said Kevin Alexander Gray, author of the book Waiting for Lightening to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics.
Gray, who has been attending the NAACP’s national convention in Kansas City, said the high rate of support for the death penalty among African Americans represents a failure of the black community to develop a young, progressive leadership. “As blacks get older, they get more conservative,” he said, “and there’s no one there to challenge the younger generation.”
Opponents of capital punishment have documented that Africans Americans are sentenced to death at rates much higher than whites for the same types of crimes. But blacks who responded to the Field Poll said this disparity didn’t change their minds.
“This country was founded on slavery and racism, but if a black person rapes and murders a young girl or an elderly woman, I’ll pull the switch myself,” said Norman Aubry, 64, a retired superintendent for the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation.
“My only problem with the death penalty is that we don’t use it enough,” he told NAM. “If you don’t use it, you don’t deter anybody.”
Executions have been on hold in California for more than four years, since a federal judge ruled the state’s method of administering lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
More than 700 prisoners are on death row in California, more than twice as many as any other state.
The overall level of support for the death penalty is three points higher than the last time the Field Poll conducted the survey in 2008, and seven points higher than in 2000, when DNA exonerations began to raise concerns about the number of innocent people on death rows. Still, capital-punishment opponents said they weren’t surprised by the results, which they said was consistent with other polls.
But Natasha Minsker, who heads the death penalty project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Field Poll’s results don’t tell the whole story.
She pointed to another survey, conducted by the University of Virginia, which found that while Californians support the death penalty, 60 percent preferred life in prison without parole. When researchers added the requirement that prisoners work and pay restitution, 64 percent preferred that alternative, and support for the death penalty plummeted to just 26 percent.
“When they’re confronted with this, more relevant choice,” Minsker said, “Californians oppose capital punishment by a wide margin.”
The Field Poll also asked California voters which sentence they preferred for a person convicted of first-degree murder: the death penalty or life in prison without parole. There, pollsters found a virtual tie, with 42 percent of respondents favoring prison and 41 percent choosing execution.
“There’s little doubt that Californians overwhelmingly support the death penalty,” DiCamillo said, “but for some people, the bar for its application might be quite high—only for a cop killer or a terrorist or someone convicted of truly heinous crimes. Others favor it for simple first-degree murder.”
Regardless of public sentiment, executions are unlikely to resume in California in the near future. Litigation over the constitutionality of the state’s method of lethal injection is likely to go on for months, if not years.