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The death penalty

Brief descriptions of some execution methods.
Problems with execution by lethal injection.

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The guillotine

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Governments have tried numerous methods to execute people. All have their advantages and disadvantages:

None of the following techniques are used by governments in the U.S. to inmates on death row:

  • Beheading was widely used in the past. Unfortunately, it often takes multiple hacks are required to sever the neck.

  • Crucifixion was, and continues to be, a method of execution that is unmatched for its brutality, potential deterrent effect, and effectiveness in terrorizing a population. This is due to the length of time that it takes for a person to die and the degree of pain and degradation suffered by the victim. That would have been particularly true if the victim was naked and was nailed through the wrists to the cross or stake. This was the technique often used by the Roman Army during the first century CE.

  • The Guillotine was invented by the French as a method of quickly killing the victim. It involves a heavy blade that accellerates rapidly down wooden posts by gravity and severs the head. Exactly what the victim feels as their neck is severed and afterwards is open to conjecture. The shock of impact may be sufficient to render the victim unconscious. However, they might retain sufficient consciousness to survive their neck being severed for a few seconds.

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The following methods are used in the U.S. In all states that still have the death penalty, lethal injection is the preferred method. Some states keep other methods available in the event that injection cannot be used. Some offer inmates on death row a choice in execution method:

  • Electrocution: The electric chair was developed by Harold P. Brown, with the financial backing of Thomas Edison. Edison, who was promoting direct current (DC) power transmission, was in conflict at the time with George Westinghouse who favored alternating current (AC). Edison felt that people would fear AC if it was used to electrocute people. He even created a term to be used to refer to death caused by an electric shock: "being westinghoused." Edison lost the battle, and 50 or 60 cycles per second AC power distribution has become the world standard. 1

    The most recent, and perhaps llast person to be executed in the U.S. by the electric chair, was Lynda Cheryle Lyon, 54. She was killed in Alabama's electric chair called "Big Yellow Mama" just after midnight on 2002-MAY-11. She appears to have ended the century-long use of the electric chair. Lynda had been found guilty of stabbing her ex-husband and shooting a police officer. She wrote down her expectations, some of which may not have actually happened:

    "Execution by electric chair is gruesome. They shave your head so they can attach the electrodes to bare skin. They shove up cotton in your rectum and put an adult diaper on you because the charge of electricity through your body causes your bladder and intestines to evacuate. They put a hood over your face because the jolt of 2,000 volts causes your face to contort and your eyeballs to explode." 2

Her skull was shaved bare in order to make a good electrical contact with her head. She was given an initial shock of 2,050 volts for 20 seconds, and a second shock of 250 volts for 100 seconds. She clenched her fists; her body went rigid; and steam was emitted by a sponge that was placed between the electrode and her head. Steam also came from the second electrode on her left leg. 2

There have been some problems with this method of execution. A few inmates have survived. Others have had their heads catch on fire, much to the distress of the observers.

A Google search found that Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahomam South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia still may use this method. They all have lethal injection as their main method and keep electrocution on hand in case the injection method is declared unconstitutional, or the materials become unavailable.

  • Hanging is sometimes performed with a minimal dropping of the body so that the victim slowly strangles to death. However, it is more frequently used today with a long, carefully calculated, drop of the body which causes the neck to fracture. Death then happens very quickly. Still, if the calculations are not made properly, the victim's neck is sometimes severed and the head is torn from the body. Washington state allows inmates to choose this method.

  • Poison gas involves placing the victim in an air-tight enclosure -- or placing their head in a hood -- and flooding it with gas that contains a low or zero amount of oxygen. Nitrogen or Helium are often used. The victim typically goes unconsious after only one or two breaths, and dies shortly thereafter. This method is often advocated for persons wanting to commit suicide. During 2015-APR, a bill in Oklahoma became law that allows the use of nitrogen asphyxiation for execution. A Google search found that Arizona and California give inmates on death row this option.

  • Firing squad executions typically involve multiple shooters. Usually, some of them are supplied with blank cartridges so that none of them know for cerain whether they provided the fatal shot. Inmates on death row are offered this as an option in Oklahoma and Utah.

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The most common execution method, lethal injection:

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- part of the Bill of Rights -- bans "cruel and unusual punishment." 3 This phrase and evolving standards of decency have caused a search for a fast, painless, and humane way of killing people. For the past few decades, essentially all states have adopted execution by lethal injection. This typically took the form of injections of three drugs in sequence:

  • The first one, typically sodium thiopental (a.k.a. Pentothal), renders the victim unconscious in less than a minute.

  • The second, typically pancuronium bromide (a.k.a. Pavulon), is a muscle relaxant that stops breathing.

  • The third, Potassium chloride, immediately stops the heart from beating. It is not always administered, because the first two drugs are sufficient to kill the inmate. 4

In 2009, the European Union banned the export of drugs used in executions. Many American drug manufacturers followed suit. As a result, Pentothal and Pavulon are in short supply. In their place, some states have been using Idahoan and Hydrocortisone which the National Institutes of Health describe as drugs used to "cause drowsiness," "relieve anxiety" and "treat pain." Dr. Daniel Nyhan, a professor and interim director at the anesthesiology department at Johns Hopkins medical school, told the Associated Press:

"It's fair to say that those are drugs that would not expeditiously achieve [death]."

During executions, these new drugs are administered in very high doses whose effect is not fully known. As a result, many inmates being executed may be partially conscious and in pain. Some might consider that to be "cruel and unusual punishment." 5

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2014-JUL-23: Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona: Executions of inmates that did not go according to plan:

The supply of drugs that have been generally used in the past to execute people in the U.S. has been drying up. Some states are trying alternate drugs and are experiencing difficulties.

  • 2014-JAN-16, in Ohio: The state used a combination of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone to execute Dennis McGuire. 6 It took 26 minutes for him to die, during which time he snorted and gasped. Jon Paul Rion, a lawyer for the inmate's children, commented:

    "All citizens have a right to expect that they will not be treated or punished in a cruel and unusual way. Today's actions violated that constitutional expectation."

Allen Bohnert, McGuire's lawyer, referred to the execution as:

    "... a failed, agonizing experiment. ... The people of the state of Ohio should be appalled at what was done here today in their names." 7

  • 2014-APR-29, in Oklahoma: The execution of Clayton Lockett, an inmate on death row, began at 6:23 PM. Drugs were first administered to cause unconsciousness. The doctor declared him unconscious after ten minutes. But three minutes later, he began to breathe heavily, to writhe on the gurney, and to speak. David Autry, Lockett's attorney, said:

    "It was a horrible thing to witness. This was totally botched."

    Robert Patton, director of the Department of Corrections, after making some phone calls. decided to halt the execution. However, at 7:06 PM, Lockett died of a massive heart attack.

Governor Mary Fallin ordered a stay of execution for a second inmate who was also scheduled to die that night. She said:

"I have asked the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of Oklahoma's execution procedures to determine what happened and why, during this evening's execution." 8

  • CBS News reported:


  • 2014-JUL-23, In Arizona: The execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood started at 1:52 PM. The state used the same sedative and painkiller as in Ohio. Wood apparently did not lose consciousness quickly, as expected. He gasped more than 600 times and snorted for one hour and 57 minutes before he finally went silent and was pronounced dead. During the process, his lawyers made an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court asking that the execution be halted. Justice Anthony Kennedy responded by denying the appeal about a half hour after Wood had died.

    Observing the execution were family members of the victims. They had no problems with the execution. Richard Brown said:

"This man conducted a horrific murder and you guys are going, 'let's worry about the drugs.' Why didn't they give him a bullet, why didn't we give him Drano?" 9

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Webmaster's comments:

    I find these time-consuming executions difficult to understand. Surely, on a daily basis, thousands or tens of thousands of patients in North America are given a general anesthetic to render them unconscious before surgery. Why cannot prison guards be given the minimal training to use these same medications to render prisoners unconscious? As soon as they are in that state, any technique could then be used to actually kill the inmate. An even simpler execution technique would be to cause hypoxia -- deprive the body of oxygen. A mixture of two gasses, Argon and Nitrogen, applied by a mask, would send the inmate into an euphoric state within a very few breaths, quickly render them unconscious, and cause death.

    A number of recent executions that are supposed to be quick and painless, have turned out to be slow, agonizing processes. Some commentators are suggesting that these violate the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment." Some are suggesting a moratorium of new executions at least until a new, effective, and humane drug protocol can be developed.

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "War of Currents," Wikipedia, as on 2014-JUL-26, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  2. "Lynda Cheryle Lyon," Row Diva, undated, at: http://www.rowdiva.com/
  3. "Eighth Amendment." Legal Information Institute, at: http://www.law.cornell.edu/
  4. Kevin Bosnor, "Administering the injections," How Stuff Works, at: http://people.howstuffworks.com/
  5. Gillian Mahoney, "What We Don’t Know About Lethal Injection Drugs," ABC News, 2014-JUL-25, at: http://abcnews.go.com/
  6. Nash Jenkins, ""Execution Gone Awry Prompts Concern Over Dubious Lethal-Injection Drugs." Time, 2014-JUL-24, at: http://time.com/
  7. "Ohio killer's kin to sue over drugs used to execute him," CBS News, 2014-JAN-17, at: http://www.cbsnews.com/
  8. "Oklahoma inmate dies of heart attack after botched execution,"CBS News, 2014-APR-29, at: http://www.cbsnews.com/
  9. "Arizona inmate dies 2 hours after execution begins," CBS News, 2014-JUL-23, at:http://www.cbsnews.com/

Copyright 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First posted: 2014-JUL-27
Last updated: 2017-APR-25
Author: B.A. Robinson
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