April 30, 2014

Botched execution in Oklahoma renews death-penalty debate

chart of death penalty support over timeTuesday night’s botched execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett is renewing debate about how, and whether, the U.S. should continue to impose the death penalty. Though a majority (55%) of Americans in a 2013 Pew Research Center survey said they favored the death penalty for convicted murderers, that was the lowest support level in four decades; support has been falling for the past two decades. (Gallup’s most recent poll on the subject, from this past October, found 60% support, also the lowest in more than 40 years.)

While that survey didn’t ask people why they supported or opposed the death penalty, a 2011 survey (which found 62% support for capital punishment), did. Roughly half (53%) of supporters said death was the appropriate punishment for murder; as one respondent put it, “You kill someone, you get the same deal.” 15% of supporters cited the cost of keeping prisoners locked up for life (or, as one respondent said, “If you took a life you should lose your life rather than the people having to pay for you to watch TV and sit around in jail”). Only 6% of death-penalty supporters cited a deterrent effect.

Among opponents, the leading reasons for not supporting the death penalty (27% each) were that it’s morally wrong and that an innocent person could be executed by mistake. That latter reason, up from 11% two decades earlier, likely reflects publicity about exonerated death-row prisoners: Since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, 106 people convicted and sentenced to death have been later exonerated. A new study of exonerations in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that if all death-row prisoners remained under sentence of death indefinitely, at least 4.1% would eventually be exonerated.

Few in the 2011 survey cited concerns about the mechanics of executing condemned prisoners. Since then, however, the sole American manufacturer of sodium thiopental — a sedative that typically has been the first drug in the three-drug protocol used by most states for their lethal injections — has stopped making it, and the European Union has banned its export to the U.S. for use in executions.

That’s significant because the vast majority of U.S. executions are conducted by lethal injection — 87% of all 1,378 executions since the death penalty was re-established in the 1970s, and all but eight of the 493 executions in the past decade. Hence, many states have been forced to devise new ways of executing prisoners.

Lockett’s bungled execution, in fact, was Oklahoma’s first tryout of a new protocol that used midazolam instead of sodium thiopental as the first drug, intended to render the condemned prisoner unconscious. But according to news reports, Lockett began writhing and gasping on the gurney after he had been declared unconscious and the other drugs (intended to paralyze his breathing muscles and stop his heart) were being administered. Prison officials halted the execution; Lockett then died of a heart attack. A second execution scheduled to follow Lockett’s was postponed.


Topics: Death Penalty

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. John Baird3 years ago

    What is wrong with the firing squad? It is legal per US Supreme Court.

    The chance that an innocent might be executed, a common belief, doesn’t say much for the political freedom of US law enforcement.

  2. po’d3 years ago

    Hypoxia is a painless way of dying, takes only a few minutes and it works every time. Recycle altitude chambers from closed Air Force bases, and install them in prisons.

  3. WMB3 years ago

    When a medical patient has an unexpected reaction to a drug, we make a record not to administer it to that patient again. We don’t stop administering it to the vast majority of patients who do not suffer the adverse reaction. My point is that we should not let one criminal’s adverse reaction to the first drug in the execution protocol dictate the larger question of whether we should continue to execute deserving criminals. Conflating the two issues is a logical fallacy of the first order.

  4. Barbara Ruhlman3 years ago

    I have a comment about executions by lethal I.V’s or injections. When animals are euthanized by veteranerians, the animals sleep away peacefully without incident. Why, then is it so difficult to come up with a humane way to do the same in humans?

    1. slk3 years ago

      do their victims get that courtesy!!!

      1. Terrytroll3 years ago

        What does that matter? Are we supposed to lower ourselves to their level?

  5. mary mc cullough3 years ago

    Don’t you anti death penalty opponents out there think Lockett’s victim “writhed and gasped” for breath when he buried her alive? I support the same manner of death for the convicted that was done to the victim. Let them suffer for their sins.

    1. slk3 years ago


  6. Richard DeSilver3 years ago

    I think for all the reasons stated in this post, the United States should get with most of the rest of the world and ban the death penalty.

    1. slk3 years ago

      stoning is reasonable???

  7. Michael3 years ago

    I don’t understand why Heroin isn’t used for lethal injections. It’s plentiful, cheap, and (apparently) makes one feel good before falling asleep and then dying. Seems like a good solution (no pun intended) to me.

  8. GodHaveMercyonHisSoul3 years ago

    I almost felt bad for him…then I remembered he shot his victim and buried her alive.

  9. sailor393 years ago

    The hospitals can kill people by accident.
    The prisons can’t kill people on purpose.
    Something wrong here.

  10. Terry3 years ago

    Death penalty opponents often note that the total cost of putting someone to death actually exceeds that of life in prison because of the extensive legal/judicial fees required. If 15% say they support the death penalty because of costs, this info matters.