Masters Theses

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



Major Professor

Michael Johnson

Committee Members

Dwight W. Aarons, John W. Lounsbury


This study investigates the effects of increased knowledge about the death penalty on subjects' choice of punishment in capital cases. Although public opinion polls consistently demonstrate that Amencans strongly support the death penalty in the abstract, support drops drastically as situations become more concrete as well as when suitable alternative punishments are offered. A group of 54 undergraduates (10 men, 44 women) were given a short lecture about the death penalty and then read three cases in which the defendant was found guilty of capital murder. Subjects decided whether the defendant in each case should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without the possibility for parole. Another group of 48 undergraduates (17 men, 31 women) read the same three cases and decided upon a punishment without being exposed to the death penalty lecture. Although a chi-square analysis failed to demonstrate a significant difference between the two groups with regard to choice of punishment, further analysis revealed that the type of murder committed by the defendant may play a role in determining whether increased knowledge about the death penalty affects sentencing decisions. The findings are discussed in terms of recent writings concerned with public opinion and knowledge about the death penalty as well as possible future implications for legal proceedings.

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