As we examine capital punishment, let’s start with a specific case. In 2014, convicted rapist and murderer Clayton Lockett was stunned with a Taser and dragged from his cell to the execution room after refusing to go willingly. He was strapped to the padded gurney in the hospital-like room while a paramedic and doctor began working to find a suitable vein for his lethal injection. Due to his history of IV drug abuse, they had great difficulty doing so. After an hour and more than a dozen pokes, the staff hit Lockett’s femoral vein and the execution was set to begin.
The three stages of drugs were administered, but somewhere along the way, the IV line became dislodged and much of the lethal cocktail was shot into Lockett’s tissue rather than his vascular system. After a few minutes, he suddenly regained consciousness and started jerking and thrashing about. Unable to speak, he moaned in agony as prison officials and medical staff scrambled to find another vein to end Lockett’s suffering. Eventually, orders were even given to halt the execution. However, after more than an hour after the start of the execution process, they pronounced Lockett dead.
Whether or not you agree with Oklahoma, we can agree that this particular execution was a disaster. Certainly, the morality of capital punishment is a topic of considerable debate these days. However, putting aside the question of “if” for a moment, perhaps we need to think more carefully about “how”we execute our most heinous perpetrators of capital crimes. If we consider the amount of time an execution takes, the amount of suffering the condemned endures, and the likelihood and potential results of something going wrong, it is possible to examine the effectiveness and shortcomings of America’s five officially sanctioned execution methods.
Procedure: The condemned lays strapped to a padded gurney and injected with a series of three drugs. The first is typically a powerful barbiturate anesthetic that produces unconsciousness. Next, a muscle relaxant, such as pancuronium bromide, is given in a dose that should cause paralysis of all skeletal muscles, leading to suffocation. Finally, they inject potassium chloride to induce cardiac arrest. The typical time until death is five minutes.
Putting it to use: All of the states currently employing the death penalty list lethal injection as the primary means of execution, but they also allow for the use of other methods upon request or in the absence of the proper drugs. Modern states prefer lethal injection since it seems to be the most humanitarian and nonviolent form of execution. In addition, if everything goes perfectly according to plan, lethal injection is probably the least painful way to die. That said, a 7.12% botch rate is markedly higher than any other method used in the U.S., and most of the victims of those 75 botches experienced long and agonizing deaths.
Procedure: The condemned prisoner is strapped to a wooden chair and then fit with a leather cap with copper mesh on the inside that is buffered from the skin by a wet sponge. Officials attach similar electrodes to the legs. A power cable attached to the cap sends two long jolts of electricity through the body timed 15 seconds apart. There is then a five-minute pause before the doctor enters to assess the inmate and pronounce death.
The time until death ranges from two to 15 minutes.
Putting it to use: Botched electric chair executions are famously grizzly and include charred flesh, fires, screaming and writhing in pain. In fact, the first electric chair execution ever conducted didn’t go as planned; the prisoner bled profusely and survived the first jolt of electricity. One onlooker said, “They would have done better using an axe.” However, rates of botched electric chair executions are remarkably low. While botch rates are low, they are particularly gruesome, and it is somewhat unclear where the electric chair should rank as a means of execution.
Procedure: The condemned strapped to a chair in an airtight chamber. Underneath the chair sits a pail of sulfuric acid. Using a lever from outside the room, an officer drops sodium cyanide crystals into the pail, releasing hydrogen cyanide gas, which makes oxygen unusable to the body. After the inmate inhales deeply, unconciousness occurs within a few minutes, and the time until death is 10-18 minutes.
Putting it to use: Gas chamber executions have the second-highest rate of botches on our list. Multiple reports have emerged of inmates moaning and gasping as they suffocate. In one execution of a notoriously heinous perpetrator in Mississippi, witnesses saw him bang his head on a steel pole and heard him moan in pain for eight minutes before dying. While perhaps not as terrible as a blistering electrocution, asphyxiating over the course of 10 minutes is truly nightmarish. It is also worthy of note that a perfectly carried out gas chamber execution still involves asphyxiation, which must be horrible regardless of the length of time it takes for death to occur.
Procedure: Officers place the condemned on an elevated trapdoor, and then tie a rope around the neck in a hangman’s knot and rest over the shoulder in a particular direction to jerk the head violently enough to break the inmate’s cervical vertebrae. Officials determine the length of the rope and distance of the fall by the prisoner’s weight and build. Too long a rope can cause the head to rip off in a gruesome manner; too short a rope prevents the neck from breaking, and the inmate strangles to death. The time until brain death is roughly four to 18 minutes, although unconsciousness should be immediate.
Putting it to use: Hanging has a remarkably high botch rate. With modern procedures and attention to detail, that number could be improved, but not without a significant number of stranglings. The truth is that hanging is imprecise, given that the subject’s anatomy and the length and elasticity of the rope make for too many variables.
Procedure: The condemned sit on a black metal chair, most often with a hood covering the head. Sandbags arranged around and behind the chair to prevent ricochets. Five volunteer police officers then take aim with .30-caliber rifles from a blind roughly 25 feet away. One officer has a nonlethal wax bullet in his weapon, so nobody involved is sure that they fired the lethal shot. After a countdown from five, all five rifles then fire simultaneously at a white target placed over the inmate’s heart. The time until death is less than one minute.
Putting it to use: With a sample size of only 34, it is unwise to assume that no firing squad execution would be botched, but the fact that the execution revolves around physically destroying the heart lends it a bit more predictability than the other methods on our list. For example, a dose of lethal drugs may kill one person as planned but fail to kill another person of the same build, gender and age for unknown reasons. Conversely, every human body reacts the same way to massive ballistic trauma to the heart.
Conclusion: America needs to move away from its desire to sanitize and medicalize execution and focus instead on limiting the suffering of the condemned. The United States has been in search of a means of execution that appears as nonviolent as possible. The reality is, of course, that execution equals state-conducted violence. It sounds horrible because it is horrible. That is why we reserve it for the vilest, most dangerous and most irredeemable criminals. Instead of spending tons of money on lethal injections, we should acknowledge the violent nature of capital punishment. Given the low historical failure rate, the firing squad is the best choice as a form of capital punishment.
The 2014 book “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty” by Dr. Austin Sarat is the source for all data in this article.