NBC poll shows support for death penalty undimmed by recent botched execution

The botched execution of a brutal murderer in Oklahoma has done nothing to change American minds about the death penalty, but does have them looking to the past for better solutions. A new NBC poll shows the death penalty enjoying a significant level of public support — more than many other government policies — if still down from its peak twenty years ago:

A badly botched lethal injection in Oklahoma has not chipped away at the American public’s support of the death penalty, although two-thirds of voters would back alternatives to the needle, an exclusive NBC News poll shows. …

A comfortable majority of those questioned — 59% — said they favor the death penalty as the ultimate punishment for murder, while 35% said they are opposed.

That split is in line with surveys done before Lockett’s death in the last two years, and also reflects the erosion of support for capital punishment since the 1990s, when it was more than 70%.

“I don’t think this fundamentally altered views about the death penalty,” said Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.

NBC didn’t have the full poll data on line, but did include a few morsels in a separate article. There is a definite split along racial lines about the death penalty, with 58% of black respondents opposed and 64% of white respondents in favor. Catholics are twice as likely to oppose the death penalty as evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, but only a quarter of those opposed to the death penalty do so out of religious convictions. Half of Democrats oppose the death penalty, but only 18% of Republicans do. The most curious of them was this:

Having a family member who has been in prison or on probation did not make a respondent more likely to oppose or support the death penalty.

I would have guessed that this would be a demo that would lean hard against the death penalty, as one would suspect that they would have a lot more skepticism about the process that delivers such a penalty. Surprising.

The rest of this isn’t terribly surprising at all. One botched execution will not change minds on the death penalty, although it’s clearly changing minds about lethal injection.  Oddly enough, lethal injection finds its biggest support among those who are opposed to the death penalty; 70% of those say it should be the only option, while only 11% of death-penalty supporters say the same thing.

What, then, should replace it? If one wanted a sure-fire and humane method, the guillotine would be the choice, but its industrial-scope application in the French Revolution would make that a politically untenable choice. Firing squads have a lower rate of screw-ups, but they’re bloody too. The best option, according to a retired Army officer interviewed by NBC, is hanging:

“There is no such thing as killing someone humanely,” he added. “But if hanging is done properly, it’s more humane than lethal injection because there are fewer things that can go wrong.”

The same man made this ironic observation, though:

After the Lockett debacle, he is more convinced than ever that hanging is the best option.

After all, he said, “that’s how they killed Saddam Hussein.”

That hanging, of course, was famously botched and nearly resulted in a beheading.

No method will be perfect, which also describes the process that consigns people to death row in the first place. I’m opposed to the death penalty for that reason and for the way in which people like Lovett become secular martyrs in the aftermath of years of controversy over their culpability. But if we are going to have executions, then we’d better be prepared to see a few of them botched no matter the method used.