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Without lethal injection, Americans back electric chair, hanging

A majority of voters would support methods like the electric chair if lethal injection were no longer available, an NBC News poll found.
This Nov. 30, 2009 photo shows the witness room facing the execution chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. (Photo by Caroline Groussain/AFP/Getty)
This Nov. 30, 2009 photo shows the witness room facing the execution chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.

A majority of Americans would support returning to older, more gruesome methods of execution if lethal injection stops being a viable method, according an exclusive NBC News poll.

Only one in three voters surveyed believe that the death penalty should be stopped altogether if lethal injections can no longer be carried out, the survey found. Of the two thirds that support alternatives to lethal injection, many support methods that were retired after they were deemed too cruel by many states.

20% of respondents said they would support returning to the gas chamber, 18% would back using the electric chair, 12% support death by firing squad, and 8% said they were for hanging.

Support for the death penalty has fallen in recent years, but a majority of Americans still believe it is an appropriate punishment. The NBC poll found that 59% of people support the death penalty for murder, an increase from the 55% support shown by a 2013 Pew Research poll.

Just as there are racial disparities in those who currently sit on death row, there is a major gap in support between white and black Americans. While 64% of white people support the death penalty, 58% of black Americans oppose it.

The electric chair and gas chamber have been abandoned by states as a primary death penalty method in part because of executions that turned into gruesome spectacles. While lethal injection has been seen as a more humane method because of its lack of sparks and thrashing, as drug companies have stopped allowing their products to be used in death chambers, states have turned to riskier methods.

Compounding pharmacies that mix drugs without FDA oversight and untested drug combinations, as well as secrecy laws that keep information about execution procedures secret, have led to court challenges and harsh criticism from law enforcement experts. 

The question of whether there is such a thing as a humane way to put someone to death returned to the national debate after the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29. Lockett's death by lethal injection went wrong when executioners failed to find a vein to inject the untested three-drug cocktail into his bloodstream. After one drug was injected through a line into his groin, Lockett reportedly struggled and appeared to be in pain before the execution was halted. He died of a heart attack 40 minutes after the execution process began.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has ordered an investigation into the execution and into the state's execution protocols. The state has also agreed to a stay of all executions while the investigation is underway. Another inmate, Charles Warner, had been scheduled to be killed two hours after Lockett; his execution has been stayed for six months. 

Events in Oklahoma could have an impact on other states that rely on lethal injection. The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio called on Governor John Kasich to issue a six month moratorium on the death penalty there because of questions about the state's execution methods, and Robert James Campbell, a Texas inmate challenged his execution based on that state's secrecy over its drug protocol. Texas uses only one drug in its executions, pentobarbital, but it gets it from compounding pharmacies and does not reveal any information about the drug's composition or the pharmacy that provides it.

While that appeal was denied last week, the 5th circuit court of appeals issued a stay for Campbell when it was revealed that information about his mental disability was concealed by prosecutors. It is unconstitutional to execute people with mental disabilities. 

On Thursday, The Guardian, the Associated Press, and Missouri's three largest newspapers filed a lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Corrections challenging the state's secrecy around executions. The suit alleges that keeping information secret about "the type, quality and source of drugs used by a state to execute an individual in the name of the people" is a violation of the first amendment's right to access.

It is believed to be the first time death penalty secrecy laws have been challenged under the First Amendment.