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Americans Back Death Penalty by Gas or Electrocution If No Needle: Poll

In the wake of the botched Oklahoma lethal injection, Americans' support for the death penalty has not wavered, but they are open to other methods.
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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.

One in three people say that if lethal injections are no longer viable — because of drug shortages or other problems — executions should be stopped altogether, according to the survey of 800 adults by Hart Research and Public Opinion Strategies for NBC News.

But many others are open to more primitive methods of putting prisoners to death: 20 percent for the gas chamber, 18 percent for the electric chair, 12 percent for firing squad and 8 percent for hanging.

"The lethal injection is someone’s very gross interpretation of killing someone humanely," said Kuni Beasley of Frisco, Texas, who called for a return to hanging.

"It's very quick. You don't have to worry about drugs and it's very efficient. Better than a firing squad — a firing squad is messy," said Beasley, 58, a retired Army officer and college-prep entrepreneur.

"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 most recent example of what can go wrong is the April 29 execution of Clayton Lockett, who appeared to regain consciousness and writhe in pain midway through. The procedure was halted but Lockett, convicted of rape and murder, died anyway.

The details of his death were condemned by the White House and provoked fresh debate over capital punishment and how it's carried out.

Most people polled said they knew about the uproar, but it did not appear to change minds about whether the government should kill murder convicts.

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

For more survey results, click here

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 percent.

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

Republicans, whites, Protestants and older people were more likely to favor execution than Democrats, blacks and Latinos, Catholics and young people.

More than a third of those in favor said the strongest argument for the death penalty is that it's an "appropriate consequence." A similar proportion of those against it said the risk of killing someone who had been wrongly convicted was the most powerful argument.

"The most humane way is the guillotine but I can’t see that coming back."

The population was split on whether execution or life in prison without parole is a worse punishment for murder.

Keith Marcheski, 52, of Allentown, Pa., fell into the latter category and brought a very personal perspective to the question since he was released from prison in November after serving nine years for a robbery he says he did not commit.

"I would rather be put to death than do my life in jail," said Marcheski, who does not believe the government should be killing prisoners.

"I keep track of two of the guys I knew who are doing life. One would rather be put to death. You live in a cell. The food is horrible. He doesn't get mail. He doesn't get visits."

Marsha Thompson, 25, a mechanic from Brooklyn, New York, agrees that life without parole is "more of a torture than being killed" but still thinks execution is appropriate in some cases.

And to her mind, lethal injection is the best option. "It's less aggressive than being killed by a firing squad or electrocuted," she said.

Gladys Pringle, an 82-year-old retiree from Port Royal, Pa., disagrees and thinks death-penalty states should swap out drug cocktails for bullets in light of reports that some condemned inmates have suffered on the gurney.

"It would be quick and with a firing squad no one knows whose bullet actually killed the person, so it’s easier on them," she said.

"The most humane way is the guillotine but I can’t see that coming back."

All 35 capital punishment states use lethal injection as their primary method, although eight of them would allow electrocution, gas, hanging or firing squad in some cases, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

But lethal injections are becoming increasingly difficult to carry out because pharmaceutical companies don't want their products used, some compounding pharmacies are getting out of the execution business, and inmates are trying to force states to reveal their suppliers.

Some state lawmakers have introduced measures that would bring back the older methods, but some pro-execution advocates believe that would lower support from a public that has gotten used to "medicalized" deaths.

"It makes people who would otherwise not favor the death penalty look more tolerably on it," said Beasley.

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."

Image: Clayton Lockett
Clayton Lockett appeared to regain consciousness and writhe in pain midway through his execution last month.Oklahoma Department of Corrections via AP file