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Terrorism changes mind of death penalty opponents


NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Americans view terrorism with such abhorrence that about a fifth of those who usually oppose the death penalty would support the execution of a defendant convicted in this kind of attack, survey results show.

About 20 percent of the respondents surveyed by Los Angeles-based DecisionQuest, a jury and trial consulting firm, said they opposed the death penalty under all circumstances.

A significant number of those same participants said, however, that they would change their minds if a terrorist act were involved, particularly if the attack was both carried out by and killed Americans. The results of the survey were released to Reuters Tuesday.

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Of these respondents, 24.5 percent said they would sentence to death an American who committed murder through terrorism in the United States. The figures are 19.4 percent for a foreigner who murdered Americans, 18.3 percent for an American who murdered foreigners, and 15.1 percent for a foreigner who murdered foreigners.

"The closer to home it is, the more likely they are to change their mind," said Dr. David Davis, a DecisionQuest senior vice president in Boston. "Terrorism evokes a strong punitive impulse in people."

The telephone survey of more than 1,000 adults was conducted February 16-18. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percent.

Among other survey findings was that 12.1 percent believe a murder committed by a terrorist is more deserving of the death penalty than other murders. The results also showed that between 72 percent and 80 percent (depending on the specific scenario) of those who support the death penalty under some circumstances would sentence to death a defendant found guilty of murder through a terrorist act.

The death penalty survey began the same day that lawyers for condemned Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh announced their client passed up his last chance for clemency. McVeigh, 32, faces execution on May 16 for the bombing that killed 168 people. It would be the first federal execution since 1963.

McVeigh is scheduled to die by lethal injection on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, for detonating a truck bomb on April 19, 1995, that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.

The survey was also taken about a week after testimony began in the Manhattan federal trial of four Osama bin Laden followers charged with conspiring with the Saudi dissident to kill Americans. Two of the four men could face the death penalty if convicted.

The men are accused of trying to kill U.S. military personnel and civilians in schemes that began in 1989 and included the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. Bin Laden allegedly masterminded the blasts that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded thousands.

Last week, Prudence Bushnell, who had been the U.S. ambassador to Kenya at the time of the attacks, told the jury how she thought she would die in the Nairobi blast, envisioning a fatal plummet through the numerous floors collapsing beneath her. She described a descent down a blood-soaked stairwell and the "utter destruction" she found outside.

Her testimony was followed by a graphic video of charred bodies that clearly upset the jury.

"The most powerful testimony is that which paints a picture," Davis said explaining that the evidence could be either verbal or visual. "Those are the images that get carried back to the jury room."

He said, however, he had found through experience in personal injury cases that if a jury is repeatedly presented with graphic evidence, "it can tend to blunt the effect."

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