Large Majority of Americans Still Backs Death Penalty

Reports of 'botched' executions and shortage of lethal drugs haven't swayed opinions, HealthDay/Harris Poll finds

09:00 AM EDT Jun 8, 2015 Rating
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Large Majority of Americans Still Backs Death Penalty

HealthDay News -- Despite recent headline-grabbing legal challenges and reports of "botched" executions, most Americans still support the death penalty, according to a new HealthDay/Harris Poll.

The online poll, of more than 2,000 adults, found that 61 percent said they believe in the death penalty, while only 17 percent oppose it.

Opinions were more mixed, however, when it came to a relatively new death-penalty issue: In the past few years, some drug companies have been refusing to supply the chemicals used for lethal injections -- which has left several states scrambling for replacement drugs and, reportedly, botching several executions.

Twenty-seven percent of Americans said they supported the drug companies' stance, while 30 percent opposed it.

Many people -- 43 percent -- had either never heard of the issue, or did not know what to think of it.

But whether Americans are aware of it or not, the drug companies' actions are having an impact, according to Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at NYU School of Medicine in New York City.

"The real point is, the companies' refusal to ship drugs is leading to abandonment of capital punishment," Caplan contended.

He pointed to Nebraska's decision, just last week, to abolish the death penalty. "That was fueled, in part, by (the state's) inability to get the proper drugs," Caplan said.

The current drug shortage got its start several years ago. In 2011, the sole manufacturer of the anesthetic sodium thiopental -- part of the drug cocktail used in lethal injections -- stopped producing the drug. That decision followed months of pressure from death-penalty opponents.

Soon after, the European Union banned the export of a range of drugs that could be used in executions.

In the years since, some drug-makers elsewhere in the world have followed suit, and U.S. states that allow lethal injections are now on the hunt for alternative drugs.

As a result, some states have used untested drug combinations, which has led to several reports of botched executions in which condemned prisoners suffered before dying.

With states essentially experimenting with new drug cocktails, Caplan said, executions are now being met with "constant legal challenges."

Some states are reportedly toying with the idea of reviving old-fashioned execution methods. In March, Utah passed legislation making firing squads the back-up option if the state is unable to obtain lethal-injection drugs.

In the HealthDay/Harris Poll, most Americans (81 percent) said they were aware there was controversy over the use of lethal injections. But few let it sway their opinion of the death penalty: 11 percent said it bolstered their support of capital punishment, while 13 percent said it strengthened their opposition to it.

In addition, 80 percent of Americans still believe lethal injections are an "acceptable" way to carry out executions. Fifty-two percent endorse the use of poison gas, 44 percent were for the electric chair, 36 percent were for a firing squad, and 27 percent were for hanging.

A significant 59 percent to 18 percent majority believe it's ethical for medical doctors to participate in or supervise executions, the poll found.

"It seems that controversial reports of botched executions using injections have done little or nothing to reduce support for capital punishment or the use of injections as the preferred method of execution," said Humphrey Taylor, chairman emeritus of The Harris Poll.

But while U.S. public opinion may be holding firm, change is happening elsewhere.

Drug companies aren't the only ones refusing to aid executions, for example. In March, the American Pharmacists Association issued a policy discouraging pharmacists from providing drugs for lethal injections.

In doing so, the group joined other medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and American Board of Anesthesiology, that already discourage their members from participating in executions.

And few doctors do take part, Caplan said. "Most states use executioners, with a doctor only determining the death of the prisoner -- not giving lethal doses of any sort," he said.

The poll also revealed that men are more likely than women (66 percent to 56 percent) to support the death penalty, as are Republicans compared to Democrats (79 percent to 52 percent). Support for the death penalty also depends on levels of education -- just 50 percent of those with post-graduate education favor it compared to 65 percent of people with a high school education or less.

The poll, conducted online between May 7 and 11, surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,013 adults age 18 and older.

More information

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has statistical information and publications about capital punishment in the United States.

By Amy Norton
HealthDay Reporter

 

SOURCES: Humphrey Taylor, chairman emeritus, The Harris Poll; Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., professor, bioethics, NYU School of Medicine, New York City; HealthDay/Harris Poll, May 7-11, 2015 

TABLE 1A

BELIEVE IN/OPPOSE CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Trend Summary

"Do you believe in capital punishment, that is the death penalty, or are you opposed to it?"

Base: All Adults

 

1965

1969

1970

1973

1976

1983

1997

1999

2000

2001

2003

2008

2015

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Believe in it

38

48

47

59

67

68

75

71

64

67

69

63

61

Opposed to it

47

38

42

31

25

27

22

21

25

26

22

30

17

Not sure/Refused

15

14

11

10

8

5

3

8

11

7

9

7

22

Note: Data collected via telephone interview for 2008 and earlier; changes for 2015 could, in theory, reflect the methodological shift rather than an attitudinal one.

 

 

 

TABLE 1B

BELIEVE IN/OPPOSE CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Summary by Gender, Education, and Political Affiliation

"Do you believe in capital punishment, that is the death penalty, or are you opposed to it?"

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Gender

Education

Political Affiliation

Male

Female

HS or less

Some

College

College

Grad

Post

Grad

Rep

Dem

Ind

 

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

 

Believe in it

61

66

56

65

60

56

50

79

52

62

 

Opposed to it

17

16

18

13

14

24

29

8

24

16

 

Not sure/Refused

22

19

26

22

26

20

21

14

25

22

 

 

 


 

TABLE 2

IS DOCTOR PARTICIPATION ON CAPITAL PUNISHMENT ETHICAL

Summary by Gender, Political Affiliation, and Capital Punishment Stance

"Do you think it is ethical for medical doctors to participate in/supervise the execution of prisoners?"

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Gender

Political Affiliation

Male

Female

Rep

Dem

Ind

%

%

%

%

%

%

Very/Somewhat ethical (NET)

59

62

55

66

57

60

It is very ethical

35

38

32

45

31

35

It is somewhat ethical

24

24

23

21

25

25

Not at all/Not very ethical (NET)

18

20

16

12

23

16

It is not very ethical

8

10

7

7

11

7

It is not at all ethical

10

10

9

5

12

9

Not sure

23

18

28

22

20

24

 

 


 

TABLE 3

HAS DISCUSSION ABOUT USE OF INJECTIONS INFLUENCED OPINIONS ABOUT DEATH PENALTY

Summary by Education, Political Affiliation, and Capital Punishment Stance

"Has the recent discussion about the use of injections to execute condemned prisoners made you more or less likely to support the death penalty?"

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Education

Political Affiliation

Capital Punishment Stance

HS or less

Some

College

College

Grad

Post

Grad

Rep

Dem

Ind

Believe
in it

Opposed to it

Not Sure

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Aware of discussions (NET)

81

80

80

82

87

87

79

83

86

89

61

Affected opinions (Sub-net)

24

24

21

24

32

19

30

21

21

42

19

Much more/Somewhat more likely to support (Sub-sub-net)

11

12

11

11

11

13

12

11

15

2

9

Made you much more likely to support the death penalty

5

6

5

5

4

6

4

5

8

*

3

Made you somewhat more likely to support the death penalty

6

6

6

6

7

6

7

6

7

2

7

Much more/Somewhat more likely to oppose (Sub-sub-net)

13

12

11

13

21

6

18

10

6

40

9

Made you somewhat more likely to oppose the death penalty

6

5

6

6

10

3

9

4

3

14

7

Made you much more likely to oppose the death penalty

7

6

5

7

11

3

9

6

3

26

2

Has not affected my opinions on the death penalty

57

56

58

58

55

68

49

61

65

47

42

I am unaware of any discussions about this

19

20

20

18

13

13

21

17

14

11

39

 

 


 

TABLE 4

PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES CHOOSING NOT TO PROVIDE DRUGS FOR CARRYING OUT THE DEATH PENALTY

Summary by Gender, Political Affiliation, and Capital Punishment Stance

"Thinking about the reports that some pharmaceutical companies have started to refuse to provide drugs to be used to carry out the death penalty, do you support or oppose their decision not to provide these drugs?"

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Gender

Political Affiliation

Capital Punishment Stance

Male

Female

Rep

Dem

Ind

Believe
in it

Opposed to it

Not Sure

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Strongly/Somewhat support (NET)

27

30

25

18

34

27

19

60

23

Strongly support

14

16

14

7

21

13

8

49

6

Somewhat support

13

14

11

11

13

14

11

11

17

Strongly/Somewhat oppose (NET)

30

36

25

42

25

32

44

12

9

Somewhat oppose

12

15

10

14

12

13

16

6

6

Strongly oppose

18

21

16

28

12

19

27

5

3

Not sure

14

13

16

13

14

14

12

8

26

I am not aware of this

28

22

34

28

28

27

26

20

42

 


 

TABLE 5A

HOW ACCEPTABLE ARE DIFFERENT WAYS OF CARRYING OUT CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Grid Summary

"If there is a death penalty, how acceptable, if at all, do you find each of the following ways for it to be carried out?"

Base: All Adults

 

Injection

Gas

Electric Chair

Firing Squad

Hanging

%

%

%

%

%

Very/Somewhat acceptable (NET)

80

52

44

36

27

Very acceptable

49

27

23

21

16

Somewhat acceptable

31

25

20

15

11

Not at all/Not very Acceptable (NET)

20

48

56

64

73

Not very acceptable

7

16

19

18

20

Not at all acceptable

13

32

38

46

53

 

 

 

TABLE 5B

HOW ACCEPTABLE ARE DIFFERENT WAYS OF CARRYING OUT CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Summary of Very/Somewhat Acceptable by Gender, Political Affiliation, and Capital Punishment Stance

"If there is a death penalty, how acceptable, if at all, do you find each of the following ways for it to be carried out?"

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Gender

Political Affiliation

Capital Punishment Stance

Male

Female

Rep

Dem

Ind

Believe
in it

Opposed to it

Not Sure

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Injection

80

80

79

90

74

83

95

32

75

Gas

52

57

48

64

46

55

67

17

40

Electric chair

44

51

37

56

35

46

60

8

25

Firing squad

36

48

26

49

27

39

50

9

18

Hanging

27

38

17

37

18

31

39

6

12

 


 

TABLE 6

BEST WAY TO CARRY OUT CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Summary by Gender, Political Affiliation, and Capital Punishment Stance

"If there is a death penalty, which one of these do think should be used?"

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Gender

Political Affiliation

Capital Punishment Stance

Male

Female

Rep

Dem

Ind

Believe
in it

Opposed to it

Not Sure

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Any (NET)

78

81

76

86

73

83

93

43

65

Injection

53

49

57

58

52

55

59

33

53

Gas

9

12

6

11

7

11

13

4

2

Electric chair

6

8

5

8

5

8

8

3

6

Firing squad

6

7

5

6

6

6

8

1

3

Hanging

4

5

2

4

3

4

5

1

2

None of these are acceptable

12

11

12

5

17

9

1

52

10

Not sure

10

8

12

8

11

8

6

5

25

 

Methodology

  This HealthDay/Harris Poll was conducted online, in English, within the United States between February 25 and 27, 2015 among 2,032 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, 10 unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

About The Harris Poll®

Begun in 1963, The Harris Poll is one of the longest running surveys measuring public opinion in the U.S. and is highly regarded throughout the world. The nationally representative polls, conducted primarily online, measure the knowledge, opinions, behaviors and motivations of the general public. New and trended polls on a wide variety of subjects including politics, the economy, healthcare, foreign affairs, science and technology, sports and entertainment, and lifestyles are published weekly. 

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