Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Prison term favored over death sentence, new UK poll shows

"Local News Headline: Prison term favored over death sentence, new UK poll shows

Anti-death penalty group commissioned the question

By Peter Smith

The Courier-Journal

More than two-thirds of Kentuckians surveyed say that a lengthy prison sentence is the "most appropriate" punishment for someone convicted of aggravated murder, while about a third chose the death penalty, according to a University of Kentucky poll.

The survey did not ask whether residents support or reject the death penalty in all cases but focused on which sentence would be most appropriate.

Thirty-six percent of respondents said that a life sentence without possibility of parole is the most appropriate punishment; 31 percent favored other sentences that Kentucky juries can impose, including prison terms ranging from 20 years to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.

Thirty-one percent said execution is the most appropriate punishment. The other 2 percent did not pick any of the available penalties.

UK's Survey Research Center asked the question as part of a larger poll this summer of 836 Kentucky residents. The question was commissioned by the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which released the results in its most recent newsletter. The poll has a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points.

"You can't conclude that people are absolutely saying no to the death penalty, but you can conclude that there's something about their answer that suggests they were much more comfortable and satisfied with some penalty other than death," said the Rev. Patrick Delahanty, chairman of the coalition.

The group plans to promote legislation abolishing capital punishment in the upcoming legislative session.

He said residents polled are "either concerned about the possibility of killing innocent people or they're concerned about the credibility of the criminal-justice system."

But Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, said he doesn't foresee the Kentucky General Assembly changing the law. Damron said that even if many residents prefer other sentences, it's important to keep the death penalty on the books.

"My district has continued to be very supportive of the death penalty," said Damron, adding that his own experience serving on a grand jury in a multiple-murder case has influenced his views. "The way the law is right now, it's still left up to the jury to make that decision. I think that's appropriate."

The results are similar to those of other state and national surveys.

In the late 1990s, polls by The Courier-Journal and the University of Louisville found that about two-thirds of state residents favored the death penalty.

But the U of L survey, and two earlier ones by the university, found that when offered the option, more people preferred sentencing offenders to a long prison term.

The U of L and UK surveys "clearly reveal that the majority of Kentuckians favor a long-term sentence over the death penalty for convicted murderers," University of Louisville justice administration professor Gennaro Vito wrote in an analysis of the UK poll in the coalition's newsletter.

A Gallup Poll earlier this year found that two-thirds of Americans support capital punishment, but they were evenly split when they were offered a choice between sentencing an offender to death or to a life sentence without parole.

In Kentucky, capital punishment is a sentencing option in cases of murder or kidnapping with aggravating circumstances -- for instance, if the crime takes place in the course of rape, arson or certain other felonies, or if the offender has a previous record for serious crimes.

Kentucky has had two executions since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated states' rights to impose capital punishment in some circumstances. There are 40 people on Kentucky's death row, according to the Department of Corrections.

Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469.

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