Although a majority of Californians still favor the death penalty, a new public-opinion poll by a UC professor reveals that support for capital punishment has eroded significantly since 1989, the last time a detailed statewide survey on the topic was conducted.

Sixty-six percent of 800 respondents in the new poll expressed support for the death penalty, compared to 79 percent in 1989, according to the survey, which was conducted by Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Haney's findings are consistent with the findings of a recent statewide Field Poll that asked one question about capital punishment. Sixty-seven percent of respondents to that survey support the death penalty, the Field Poll found.

But Haney's survey provides the first detailed picture of Californians' attitudes about the death penalty in 20 years. A follow-up to a nearly identical statewide survey Haney conducted in 1989, the new study identifies some of the factors that might help to explain declining support.

"What's significant about the recent decline is that it occurred primarily among the strongest supporters of the death penalty," said Haney, a leading scholar on capital punishment and author of the book Death by Design.

The proportion of adult Californians who view themselves as "strong" supporters of the death penalty has dropped from 50 percent in 1989 to 38 percent today. Conversely, fewer than 9 percent were "strongly opposed" to capital punishment 20 years ago, compared to 21 percent today.

"These changes appear to be related to changes in the way Californians view the system of death sentencing, rather than just the punishment itself," said Haney.

For example, the poll revealed much greater concern about the possibility of executing innocent people: 44 percent expressed concern this year, compared to only 23 percent in 1989. In addition, the number of respondents who believe the death penalty is a deterrent to murder dropped from 74 percent in 1989 to only 44 percent today. Similarly, the number of people who did not believe that prisoners sentenced to life without parole would actually stay in prison until they died dropped to about 40 percent, compared to 66 percent who held that belief in 1989.

"There is a higher level of accurate understanding today that life in prison without the possibility of parole is the real alternative to the death penalty under California law," said Haney, noting that no prisoner under that sentence has ever been paroled or pardoned in California.

Although Californians are somewhat more knowledgeable about the death penalty today than they were 20 years ago, some misconceptions persist. For example, Haney found that nearly half the respondents in the 2009 survey, compared to 54 percent in 1989, thought the death penalty is cheaper to implement than life without parole, although the reverse is true.

The new survey, which queried 800 jury-eligible Californians in February and March, also offered respondents an alternative to the death penalty--a sentence that guaranteed a prisoner would spend the rest of his or her life in prison and be required to work to pay restitution to the victim's family. With this alternative, support for the death penalty plunged to only 26 percent said Haney. Even when work and restitution were removed, 55 percent still preferred the alternative of life in prison without parole, compared to 37 percent who preferred capital punishment (and 8 percent who said they weren't sure). The survey also revealed that 64 percent of respondents oppose sentencing severely mentally ill individuals to death, an issue that is currently being litigated in a number of courts around the country.

The survey also asked about which factors would sway a potential juror's verdict toward life without parole or death. Among the factors that would lead them to vote for a life without parole sentence, according to the survey, were if the defendant had been seriously abused as a child, was intellectually or emotionally impaired at the time of the crime, or would make a positive adjustment and contributions in prison. Likewise, people were more likely to vote for the death penalty in a given case when the crime involved torture, there were multiple victims, or occurred during a sexual assault.

Haney said the 2009 survey, which had a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percent, was an almost exact replica of the one done in 1989. "Public opinion data are important," said Haney, "It's useful to know whether and how statewide attitudes have changed on these issues." Together the two surveys form the most detailed statewide study of public opinion ever done on the death penalty in the state. "Californians appear to be changing their attitudes on capital punishment in step with national trends," he added.

The new study was funded by the National Jury Project; the poll was conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Virginia.

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Note to journalists: Haney can be reached at (831) 459-2153 or via e-mail at psylaw@ucsc.edu.