Capital Punishment: Methods of Execution
Jurisdictions with Capital Punishment use one or more of the following methods to implement the sentence: hanging, firing squad, electrocution, lethal gas, and lethal injection. The Eighth Amendment of the U. S. Constitution bars states from using a method that constitutes Cruel and Unusual Punishment. Lawsuits alleging that the methods violate this federal and state constitutional right have been commenced in both court systems.
Hanging has a lengthy history in this country and abroad. It requires attaching one part of a rope to an elevated item, securing the other end of the rope around the person’s neck, and suspending the person from the rope. The ‘‘short drop’’ method preceded the ‘‘long drop’’ method. The latter was preferred because the former often resulted in protracted deaths through strangulation. The ‘‘long drop’’ requires constructing a gallows, an edifice with a beam from which the hanging rope is suspended and a floor containing a trap door. A rope treated to eliminate springing is attached to the beam and suspended over the trap door. A noose is created by making a knot in the rope and lubricating it with wax or soap. After ascending the gallows, the condemned’s legs are bound and a leather halter is used to secure the arms and hands. Next the person is blindfolded or a hood is placed over his or her head. This is followed by putting the noose around the person’s neck and positioning the knot behind the left ear. After the warden signals, the executioner releases the trap door. The weight of the person’s body plummeting through the trap door is supposed to cause a rapid fracture and dislocation of the neck, resulting in an instantaneous death. This method’s popularity began to wane because of the realization that death often did not occur in this manner. Instead, the person died from strangulation or decapitation. This concern is evidenced by the fact that very few death penalty jurisdictions still authorize using this method and then only if the person selects it or the alternative method is deemed unconstitutional.
Execution by firing squad also has a lengthy history of being an accepted method of execution. It requires strapping the condemned in a chair that is surrounded by sandbags to absorb the person’s blood. Next a target, a white cloth circle, is placed over the person’s heart. Then the person is blindfolded or a hood is placed over his or her head. The shooters, positioned behind an enclosure with slots in it exposing the barrels of their rifles, are instructed to shoot at the target. One shooter is not given live ammunition. The firing squad still remains an unpopular method of execution. The few jurisdictions still permitting it also have lethal injection as an alternative method.
Unlike the firing squad, execution by electrocution was once a popular method of execution. Its popularity was partially due to technological advances in the form of the increasing availability of electricity. In 1888, New York became the first death penalty jurisdiction to require that executions be carried out by electrocution rather than by hanging. First, the person is seated in a wooden chair. Leather belts are used to secure the person’s chest, groin, legs, and arms. A natural sponge moistened with saline solution is placed on top of the prisoner’s shaved head and covered with a metal electrode. Another electrode moistened with conductive jelly is fastened to a shaved area of the prisoner’s leg to reduce resistance to the electricity. A hood is usually put over the person’s head, and a chin strap secures the head. The electrical current starts flowing through the prisoner’s body when the executioner pulls a handle or pushes a button. An alternating current system is usually used. The initial jolt is around 2,000 volts and lasts for three to five seconds. It is followed by a second reduced charge. If a heartbeat is detected, the cycle recommences and continues until the prisoner is dead. Several jurisdictions still authorize this method, but only one mandates it, and the rest allow the condemned to select another method or make electrocution the default method.
Technological advances, this time in the field of chemistry, played a role in the adoption of lethal gas as a method of execution. In 1924, Nevada became the first jurisdiction to eliminate hanging and adopt this method. First, the condemned must be securely strapped to a chair in an airtight chamber. Sulfuric acid is put in a dish under the chair. The executioner moves a lever releasing sodium cyanide pellets into the dish. Mixing these two chemicals produces poisonous hydrogen cyanide gas. The person has been instructed to start inhaling deeply when he or she hears the lever fall. Eventually, the person loses consciousness and dies of hypoxia. Lethal gas never reached the same level of popularity as electrocution, and today very few states authorize its use. All these jurisdictions designate lethal injection as the alternative method.
In 1977, Oklahoma became the first death penalty jurisdiction to adopt lethal injection as a method of execution. To carry out an execution this way, the condemned person is strapped to a gurney and then several heart monitors are placed on his or her skin. Two needles, one a back up, are inserted into a vein. Tubes are connected to these needles. These tubes run through a hole in a wall leading to a room adjacent to the execution chamber and, depending on which protocol the jurisdiction uses, are attached to two or three drips that intravenously administer the chemicals. If the three chemical process is used, saline is first injected. Once the warden gives the signal, the curtain preventing the witnesses from seeing the condemned is raised. At this point sodium thiopental, a fastacting anesthetic, is administered. Pavulon or pancuronium bromide is then injected, paralyzing the person and suppressing the respiratory system. Potassium chloride, the last chemical injected, causes the heart to stop beating. Lethal injection is the most common method of execution in the United States.
ROBERTA M. HARDING
References and Further Reading
- Denno, Deborah W., Is Electrocution an Unconstitutional Method of Execution? The Engineering of Death over the Century, Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 35 (1994): 2:551–692
- ———, When Legislatures Delegate Death: The Troubling Paradox Behind States Uses of Electrocution and Lethal Injection and What It Says About Us, Ohio St. L. J. 63 (2002): 1:63–260
- Essig, Mark. Edison & the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death. New York: Walker & Company, 2003
- Gatrell, V. A. C. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770–1868. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994
- Harding, Roberta M., The Gallows to the Gurney: Analyzing the Un(Constitutionality) of the Methods of Execution, Boston Univ. Pub. Int. L. J. 6 (1996): 1:153–178
- Moran, Richard. Executioner’s Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003