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79 percent of Utahns support death penalty, poll finds

Published: Thursday, June 10 2010 9:20 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — In the course of seven years, Utahns' support for the death penalty has not waned.

Results from a Deseret News-KSL poll conducted this week show that 79 percent of Utahns either strongly or somewhat favor the death penalty. The poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, found that only 16 percent oppose executions.

The poll results mirror a 2003 survey that asked Utahns the same question. In that Deseret News poll, 78 percent favored the death penalty and 17 percent opposed it. Because of the built-in margin of error, the results were basically identical.

The number of Utahns who favor the death penalty is 15 percentage points higher than the rest of the nation, according to a 2008 Gallup poll that showed 64 percent of Americans favor capital punishment.

University of Utah sociologist Heather Melton said those who support the death penalty often do so for moral reasons and out of a belief that it will somehow right a wrong.

"One of the reasons people seem to support the death penalty is because they see it as justice for what happened or revenge, kind of an 'eye for an eye, this is what they deserve,' " she said. "People who support it feel they are getting justice."

Not only do Utahns overwhelmingly believe capital punishment is just, they go so far to say that the sentence is not used enough. Sixty-three percent of the 312 Utahns polled said they do not believe the death penalty is imposed as often as it should be in the United States. Twenty-one percent believe it is imposed "about the right amount" and 8 percent feel that it is imposed too often.

Utahns would like to see more executions compared to the country as a whole. According to a nationwide Gallup poll conducted in October, 49 percent said they do not believe the death penalty is imposed often enough, with 24 percent saying it is imposed "about right" and 20 percent believing it is imposed too often.

Melton said there are a number of reasons that may explain why Utahns favor capital punishment so much. Those who are conservative, white and male tend to be pro-death penalty, she said.

The Dan Jones poll found men favoring the death penalty only slightly outnumber women — 84 percent to 77 percent. And while very few Utahns who identified their political ideology as conservative said they oppose the death penalty, the majority of those who consider themselves moderates or even somewhat liberal still favor capital punishment, the survey indicated.

All of those polled who identified a religious affiliation were far more likely to favor the death penalty than oppose it. Stephen Bahr, a professor of sociology at BYU, said this can partially be explained in religious doctrine.

"Religious teachings of various kinds teach justice and consequences for what you do," Bahr said. "There are scriptures on both sides, but culturally there are notions that in justice and fairness, if you killed somebody, you should have to pay for that."

This belief was echoed by Andy Dudzik, 78, of Green River, Wyo., who was definitive in his support of capital punishment.

"I'm for it," he said Thursday while shopping in Salt Lake City. "I figure if they kill somebody they should have their life taken away, too. Taxpayers shouldn't be paying for murderers, that's for sure."

But others randomly interviewed by the Deseret News were less absolute. Stacy Hamm, 32, an architect from Salt Lake City, said she was "torn" on the issue but was definitely more for the death penalty than against it.

"It seems like a horrible, mean thing to do when they could just get life in prison," she said. "I don't think all people who get the death penalty should have it, but those who commit crimes against children or who are vicious and mean-spirited and commit serial crimes that are unfathomable should get it on the basis of their crimes and their mentality."

Melton said people's opinions will change depending on the details of a crime. It is not uncommon for someone who supports the death penalty to do so conditionally.

"Many people who in theory support the death penalty have qualms because when you look at the research on white victims vs. non-white victims, people are much more likely to get the death penalty when there's a white victim than if there's non-white victims for the same crimes," Melton said. "People who support (the death penalty) are concerned about biases."

But for some, an opposition to the death penalty is rooted less in moral reasons than a belief that it just isn't effective. David Swigart, 46, a window and door installer from Salt Lake City said he feels like the death penalty fails as both a deterrent and as a just punishment. The way he sees it, it's a drain on resources.

"I think (the death penalty) is set up wrong," Swigart said. "I just don't believe in it. It costs a lot of money, with all the appeals and time it takes and it's an easy way out. Why not make someone think about what they did for the rest of their lives?"

e-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

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