Quinnipiac: death penalty support inches higher

In a trend that began after the Cheshire home-invasion murders, Connecticut voters continue to say that the state's ultimate penalty should be execution, not life in prison without chance of parole, according to a poll released today.

A Quinnipiac University poll found voters support execution over life imprisonment, 48 percent to 43 percent, a change since the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters in July 2007, a crime that figures prominently in the death penalty debate in Connecticut.

Previous polling consistently has found voters strongly support the death penalty when asked if they favored or opposed executions for murder, but the voters used to choose life imprisonment when offered a choice between death and life without parole.

"In Connecticut, the Cheshire home invasion murders appear to have changed that. Now voters back the death penalty no matter how we ask the question, but by a smaller margin, when they have the life without parole option," said Douglas Schwartz, the poll's director.

The poll comes as a closely divided legislature considers repealing the death penalty for the second time in three years. A repeal bill passed in 2009, only to be vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. Her successor, Dannel P. Malloy, opposes capital punishment.

Members of the Petit family testified against repeal in a public hearing Monday.

In a poll conducted in January 2005, two years before the Cheshire murders, voters chose life without parole over the death penalty, 49 percent to 37 percent. In three subsequent polls, voters have swung toward the death penalty.

In today's poll, voters favored execution over life imprisonment, 48 percent to 43 percent. The margins were 47 percent to 44 percent in November 2007 and 46 percent to 41 percent last October, immediately after a defendant in the Cheshire case, Steven Hayes, was convicted.

Asked simply if they favored or opposed the death penalty, voters favored execution in the latest poll, 67 percent to 28 percent, compared to 65 percent to 23 percent last October and 59 percent to 31 percent in January 2005, before the murders.

Responses varied by age, party affiliation and gender. Democrats, women and the young favored life imprisonment over death, while Republicans, men and voters older than age 34 supported the death penalty.

In other issues, voters strongly supported allowing adults to use marijuana if prescribed for medical reasons, 79 percent to 17 percent. They also favor decriminalization for possession of small amounts, 65 percent to 32 percent.

The support cuts across all demographic groups, by age and party affiliation..

Voters also favor Sunday liquor sales, 66 percent to 31 percent, the highest level of support in any Quinnipiac poll.

"Both Sunday liquor sales and decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana win 2-1 support among Connecticut voters. And there is a near consensus on the medical marijuana law with about 8 in 10 voters supporting it," Schwartz said. "It is rare to see such a level of support for any issue."

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