Hang 'em High?

Recent coverage of the deaths of schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman shows at least some members of the public are still very much in favour of the death penalty - but is it still a majority?

Hang 'em High?

Recent coverage of the deaths of schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman shows at least some members of the public are still very much in favour of the death penalty - but is it still a majority?

Overall, MORI has asked about the use of capital punishment four times in the past 24 years. We have found a consistent three quarters (76%-78%) saying the death penalty can be sometimes justified; most recently in 1995 (there was one exception in 1990, when less than two-thirds - 63% - said they were in favour). Older people are most supportive of the idea, with four in five of the over 65s in favour, as opposed to 68% of the under 34s. In terms of methods of execution, the British favour lethal injection as opposed to hanging by more than two-to-one.

If you ask whether the death penalty is justified for the killing of a child, you get an even higher figure: Over four fifths (82%) in favour when we last asked.

However, those who feel that public opinion is clear cut need to be cautious before rushing to demand another look at the law. The trends above are based on simply asking whether the death penalty can ever be justified.

If one asks a slightly different question and asks the public to choose between either life in prison, a long prison sentence or the death penalty, one gets a different picture, which suggests that less than half the public are really fervid advocates of execution.

For example, in the immediate aftermath of the Sarah Payne murder in 2000, we asked the public, in a poll for the News of the World, what the most appropriate punishment was for child killers - almost three in five (58%) chose the death penalty and a third (33%) a life prison sentence.

But by the time Roy Whiting was convicted and sentenced for her murder in December 2001, the proportion saying the death penalty was appropriate for the murder of a child had fallen to only two in five (41%) and more chose life in prison (49%). Nearly everyone - 84% - strongly agreed that the judge's sentence of life in prison with no prospect of release was appropriate, with less than one in 10 (7%) who disagreed.

Had the British public's views shifted? Or simply, is the immediate aftermath of a terrible murder like this a time when feelings will be running high? Perhaps when the public take a more considered view, their feelings are more equivocal, and less markedly detached from those of MPs who have consistently voted against reintroducing the death penalty repeatedly over the last 30 years.

Q1 Do you think that the death penalty is ever justified, or not?

1995 ---->
1978 1981 -Jan 90 All 18-24 25-34 35-54 55+
% % % % % % % %
Yes, sometimes 77 78 63 76 68 73 75 80
No, never 21 19 33 19 27 23 20 14
Don't know 2 3 4 5 5 4 5 6
Source: MORI

Q4-10 I am going to read out a list of various crimes and I would like you to tell me what you think the sentence should be for each one. Should it be the death penalty, a life prison sentence, a long prison sentence, a short prison sentence, or should it be none of these? Firstly for ...

Death penalty A life prison sentence A long prison sentence A short prison sentence None Don't know
% % % % % %
Q4 Murder of an adult stranger 31 50 15 * 1 3
Q5 Serious sexual abuse of an adult stranger 11 43 41 2 1 2
Q6 Murder of a child 58 33 7 * 1 1
Q7 Serious sexual abuse of a child 30 45 21 1 2 1
Q8 Kidnap of a child 8 39 44 4 2 4
Q9 Murder of a husband or wife in a fit of rage 8 28 37 10 4 13
Q10 Murder committed in prison while already serving a life sentence 35 43 10 1 3 8
Source: MORI/News of the World

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