I am not a proponent of capital punishment. Not because of the morality of taking a life, but because there are too many ways the wrong person can be executed. The police can be overzealous in their investigation or overlook evidence in their haste to find a suspect. Most prosecutors will overlook proof of innocence if it doesn’t meet their theory of the crime. Eyewitnesses can be mistaken in their identification of the suspect.
When settlers came to this country, they brought capital punishment with them. The first recorded instance of capital punishment being carried out was on a Capt George Kendall of Jamestown in 1608. He was executed for being a spy.
Now let’s discuss some methods used and problems if any with each method. If we’re going to kill someone we should do it right.
In Baze v. Rees (No. 07-5439), decided 8-1 on Apr. 16, 2008, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito, wrote in their concurrent opinion: “In 1977, legislators in Oklahoma, after consulting with the head of the anesthesiology department at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, introduced the first bill proposing lethal injection as the State’s method of execution. A total of 36 States have now adopted lethal injection as the exclusive or primary means of implementing the death penalty, making it by far the most prevalent method of execution in the United States. Twenty-seven of the 36 States that currently provide for capital punishment require execution by lethal injection as the sole method. It is also the method used by the Federal Government. Of these 36 States, at least 30… use the same combination of three drugs in their lethal injection protocols.
The first drug, sodium thiopental (also known as Pentathol), is a fast-acting barbiturate sedative that induces a deep, comalike unconsciousness when given in the amounts used for lethal injection. The second drug, pancuronium bromide (also known as Pavulon), is a paralytic agent that inhibits all muscular-skeletal movements and, by paralyzing the diaphragm, stops respiration. Potassium chloride, the third drug, interferes with the electrical signals that stimulate the contractions of the heart, inducing cardiac arrest. The proper administration of the first drug ensures that the prisoner does not experience any pain associated with the paralysis and cardiac arrest caused by the second and third drugs.”
In 1977, Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal-injection legislation. Five years later, Texas performed the first execution by lethal injection.
Tom Head, Civil Liberties Guide at About.com, in an About.com – Civil Liberties section article titled “History of the Electric Chair,” (accessed Aug. 15, 2011), wrote: “In 1881, capital punishment was in common use in the United States–but that usually meant hanging, or occasionally a firing squad. Enter New York dentist Albert Southwick, who saw an old drunk accidentally electrocute himself on a power generator with no visible pain. He told a friend in the legislature, and the idea of executing people using the modern marvel of electricity began to take hold […] Southwick soon became part of a New York legislative panel charged with the goal of eliminating gruesome forms of execution by replacing them with electrocution. In 1888, before the electric chair had technically been invented, the State of New York added Chapter 489 to its state code–establishing electrocution as the state’s official execution method. [In] 1889, William Kemmler… was sentenced to die… in Auburn Prison’s electric chair, the first in the country. It took eight agonizing minutes to kill him but it did the job, and electrocution soon became the most widely used method of legal execution in the United States. Between 1890 and 1973, over 4,000 people were executed in the electric chair…”
The first person executed with poison gas was a man named Gee Jon. The state of Nevada thought they would use cyanide as a more humane way to execute criminals. They attempted to pump gas into his cell while he was asleep. It didn’t work.
The Office of the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney, in its website section titled “Death Penalty – Methods of Execution” (accessed Aug. 15, 2011), wrote:
“The use of a gas chamber for execution was inspired by the use of poisonous gas in World War I, as well as the popularity of the gas oven as a means of suicide. Nevada became the first state to adopt execution by lethal gas in 1924 and carried out the first execution in 1924. Since then it has served as the means of carrying out the death sentence 31 times. Lethal gas was seen as an improvement over other forms of execution, because it was less violent and did not disfigure or mutilate the body. The last execution by lethal gas took place in Arizona in 1999.
Only 4 states, Arizona, California, Missouri, and Wyoming, currently authorize lethal gas as a method of execution, all as an alternative to lethal injection, depending upon the choice of the inmate, the date of the execution or sentence, or the possibility of lethal injection being held unconstitutional. As of April 1, 2008, 11 of 1,099 (01.0%) executions performed since 1976 have been by the administration of lethal gas. Most recently, Walter LeGrand elected Lethal Gas in Arizona on March 3, 1999.” Forms of Execution in the United States, 1977 – 2009 – Death Penalty – ProCon.org
John Paul Stevens, JD, US Supreme Court Justice, in an Apr. 21, 1992 dissenting opinion in Gomez v. United States, wrote:
“Execution by cyanide gas is ‘in essence asphyxiation by suffocation or strangulation.’ As dozens of uncontroverted expert statements filed in this case illustrate, execution by cyanide gas is extremely and unnecessarily painful. ‘Following inhalation of cyanide gas, a person will first experience hypoxia, a condition defined as a lack of oxygen in the body. The hypoxic state can continue for several minutes after the cyanide gas is released in the execution chamber. During this time, a person will remain conscious and immediately may suffer extreme pain throughout his arms, shoulders, back, and chest. The sensation may be similar to pain felt by a person during a massive heart attack.’ ‘Execution by gas . . . produces prolonged seizures, incontinence of stool and urine, salivation, vomiting, retching, ballistic writhing, flailing, twitching of extremities, [and] grimacing.’ This suffering lasts for 8 to 10 minutes, or longer.”
The Death Penalty Information Center, in its website section titled “Descriptions of Execution Methods – Hanging” (accessed Aug. 15, 2011), offered the following:
“Until the 1890s, hanging was the primary method of execution used in the United States… For execution by this method, the inmate may be weighed the day before the execution, and a rehearsal is done using a sandbag of the same weight as the prisoner. This is to determine the length of ‘drop’ necessary to ensure a quick death. If the rope is too long, the inmate could be decapitated, and if it is too short, the strangulation could take as long as 45 minutes…
Immediately before the execution, the prisoner’s hands and legs are secured, he or she is blindfolded, and the noose is placed around the neck, with the knot behind the left ear. The execution takes place when a trap-door is opened and the prisoner falls through. The prisoner’s weight should cause a rapid fracture-dislocation of the neck. However, instantaneous death rarely occurs. If the inmate has strong neck muscles, is very light, if the ‘drop’ is too short, or the noose has been wrongly positioned, the fracture-dislocation is not rapid and death results from slow asphyxiation. If this occurs the face becomes engorged, the tongue protrudes, the eyes pop, the body defecates, and violent movements of the limbs occur.”
Forms of Execution in the United States, 1977 – 2009 – Death Penalty – ProCon.org
Kevin P. Robillard, Editorial Assistant at POLITICO, wrote in his June 16, 2010 Newsweek article, “Making a Killing: A History of Execution Methods in the United States”: “On June 18, 2010, convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner… became the third man to die by firing squad since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. He’s likely to be the last. Utah is one of only two states that still allow the firing squad – Oklahoma is the other – and both tightly restrict it. In the Utah, only prisoners who chose the squad prior to its 2004 elimination can elect to die by the bullet. In Oklahoma, the option will only be available if lethal injection is ever declared unconstitutional…
Too many hangings were going wrong, resulting in decapitations or slow, painful choking deaths that disturbed onlookers. Part of the solution was for hangings to move indoors, behind prison walls. Another part was to look for more humane methods. In 1896… the governor of New York set up a commission to look for better options.
Meanwhile, Western and Southern states, particularly those with strong gun cultures, legalized firing squads. In the 19th century, these deaths were uncomplicated. The condemned was strapped to a pole of some kind, blindfolded, and then shot at by marksman. Today, the process is more complex. Five shooters will aim at Gardener, but only four of them will have live .30 caliber rounds. (The fifth will have a dud that generates similar noise and recoil.) Simultaneously, they’ll shoot at an ‘area the size of the palm of your hand,’ Seitz said. ‘If the firing squad is done correctly, it’s extremely fast.’ Gary Gilmore… died by this method. The military also commonly used the firing squad, particularly during the Civil War.”
June 16, 2010 – Kevin P. Robillard
The following chart lists methods of execution in the US from 1977 to 2009. We started in 1977 because that was when Oklahoma became the first state to authorize lethal injection – currently the most common form of execution. For information about executions prior to 1977, visit our resource “US Executions from 1608-2002: A Demographic Breakdown of the Executed Population.”
Update 10/1/15- Death penalty states are looking at alternatives to lethal injection. Tennessee passed a law last year to reinstate the electric chair if it can’t get lethal drugs, and Utah has reinstated the firing squad as a backup method.