There have been some high-profile mishandled executions this year, including one in Oklahoma (where the IV was not placed properly, causing the inmate to grimace and writhe) and another in Arizona (which took nearly two hours and required 15 doses of lethal injection drugs). These executions drew a lot of attention, sparked outage and prompted calls to get rid of the death penalty.
All of which raises the question: Do botched executions have any impact on how people feel about executions? The short answer: No, not really.
A new Gallup poll, released Thursday, shows that American support for the death penalty hasn’t really moved in the last five years:
It is worth noting that the gap between those who support and oppose the death penalty was more narrow in a Pew Research Center survey taken last year, which found that 55 percent of Americans supported it and 37 percent opposed it.
Public support for the death penalty has dropped over the last two decades, something found by the Pew poll last year and the Gallup poll this year. Gallup’s survey found that four out of five Americans supported the death penalty in 1994, a number that has declined considerably since then. (The Pew survey shows a similar dip since the mid-1990s.)
Now, Gallup also asks another question that gauges public support when an alternative method of punishment is offered. (The question above just asks if a person supports the death penalty, a simple yes or no question that doesn’t include any alternatives.) When given the choice between the death penalty or life in prison (with zero chance at parole), a slimmer majority of people still favor the death penalty — just as they did three years ago:
The surveys were conducted in October and September, well after the bungled executions occurred. Now, Gallup doesn’t say one way or the other if the people who were polled paid much attention to these executions, so it is possible that some respondents simply didn’t hear a lot about what happened or didn’t think about these executions all that much.
Which, of course, is part of how the death penalty works in this country. Executions occur in small, guarded rooms, far from the public, and are only witnessed by a handful of souls. Fewer executions are carried out each year, and they take place in the same small handful of states. When they go awry, or when something unusual happens (like three executions carried out in less than 24 hours), they draw some attention. And when they go as planned, they tend not to register at all.