Way to Go
Methods of Capital Punishment
During way stay in Paris, the sight of a public execution revealed to me the weakness of my superstitious belief in progress.
- Leo Tolstoy
Losing Your Head
Does beheading hurt? Yes, it can. How much depends on the executioner's skill, or lack of it.
When Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed at Fotheringay Castle in 1587, a clumsy headsman gave her 3 strokes without quite managing to sever her head. The headsman then had to saw though the skin and gristle with his sheath knife before the job could be regarded as complete. The profound, protracted groan Mary gave when the axe first hit left the horrified witnesses in no doubt that her pain was excruciating.
How long is the interval of consciousness after the head is severed? In France, in the days of the guillotine, some of the condemned were asked to blink their eyes if they were still conscious after the knife fell. Reportedly, their heads blinked for up to 30 seconds after decapitation. How much of this was voluntary and how much due to reflex nerve action is speculation. Most nations with science sophisticated enough to determine this question have long since abandoned decapitation as a legal tool.
A particularly detailed report comes from Dr Beaurieux, who under perfect circumstances experimented with the head of Languille, guillotined at 5:30am on 28 June 1905:
If indeed a severed head remains conscious for a short while then the following procedure might be regarded as humane - assuming the purpose was to convince the dying man he was flying to heaven.
However quickly consciousness is lost, there is little doubt that the procedure must produce a painful few seconds. Harold Hillman, then reader in physiology at the University of Surrey, wrote an account of the suffering caused by different methods of execution for New Scientist (27 October 1983) at the time when the World Medical Association had just discussed attitudes of physicians to capital punishment. This is what Hillman said about the guillotine:
The year 1977 marked the last official use of the guillotine in France. On the 10th of September Hamida Djandoubi was executed. (May it never be used again.)
Source: New Scientist and metaphor.dk/guillotine from Dale McIntyre, University of Cambridge; Mike Snowden, London; John Rudge, Harlington, Middlesex; Tony Corless
Fact of the Day for Tuesday 28 January 2003
Think the last time that heads rolled in France at the blade of the guillotine was during Louis XVI's reign? Not even close. Try 1977.
In fact, things were just warming up in 1783 when King Louis and Marie Antoinette went under the blade - by year's end, what was meant as a "privileged" manner for the nobility to die was the cause of death for thousands of French citizens. By the time the 20th Century rolled around, the instrument of death was carried by rail from place to place. The last public execution occurred in June 1939 at the dawn of World War II, with photos appearing in papers nationwide. The war would bring enough blood of its own, so the gory practice of execution for all to see was discontinued.
That's not to say that France didn't get its money's worth out of the contraption, however. Although many countries around the world had banned capital punishment by the 1950s, the French did not. Although used sparingly, the government felt that the threat of the guillotine was an effective tool to dissuade would-be criminals. The last person to fall victim to the flying blade was Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian gentleman who had been convicted of murder. Executioner Marcel Chevalier did the deed on 10 September 1977 and he remained on duty until the death penalty was finally withdrawn in France in 1981.
Death by Decree: State by State
Larry Greene, administrative assistant to the warden at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, shows the state death chamber at the prison last month.
Lethal injection is used by 36 states, the US military and the US government, but it is not always the only method of execution used. Electrocution, the gas chamber, hanging and the firing squad are alternatives in some states. Two states, Alabama and Nebraska, allow only electrocutions. Methods of execution in the 38 states that have the death penalty:
Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and the District of olumbia do not have a death penalty.
Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Death Penalty Information Centre; photo by Tom Dodge, The Columbus Dispatch via AP
Executed in US May Be Awake As They Suffocate
Miami - Some prisoners executed by lethal injection in the United States may die of suffocation while they are still conscious and in pain, University of Miami researchers said in a study that concluded the drugs do not work as intended. The study, published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Medicine, raised new questions about whether the lethal cocktail violates the US constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Lethal injection is the primary method of execution for 37 US states and the federal government, though more than a dozen states have halted or suspended the procedure because of legal or ethical questions. The drugs used are the anæsthetic thiopental, pancuronium bromide to paralyse the muscles and lungs, and the electrolyte potassium chloride to stop the heart. First adopted by Oklahoma lawmakers looking for a humane alternative to the electric chair, the combination is supposed to produce unconsciousness and then death due to respiratory and cardiac arrest.
The researchers studied drug dosages and time elapsed until death in 42 lethal injections in North Carolina and 8 in California. They concluded the thiopental might have been insufficient to keep the prisoners unconscious in some cases, based on concentrations in their blood after death. They said the potassium chloride injection, which causes an intense burning sensation, did not reliably hasten death because prisoners given it died no faster than those who got only the other two drugs. They concluded that pancuronium was the only reliably fatal part of the cocktail, meaning the executed may actually have died of suffocation as it paralysed their lungs.
In cases where the injection was botched and the drugs were delivered into the muscle or under the skin rather than into the veins, prisoners would by fully aware as the paralysis took hold and the potassium chloride was administered, said Teresa Zimmers, who led the study. "It would sort of be the equivalent of slowly suffocating while being burned alive," Zimmers said in a telephone interview. The researchers said that was likely the experience of Florida inmate Angel Diaz, who took 34 minutes to die in December after the needles were inserted improperly.
Doctors and nurses are ethically barred from administering lethal injections. But even when the injections were done properly, there were doubts the anæsthesia was adequate to avert suffering. It was unclear whether levels measured in the blood after death accurately reflected those before death, the authors cautioned. But they said execution witnesses have reported that some prisoners were visibly distressed even after the anæsthesia was injected and in four cases, they tried to sit up.
"The reason that people support lethal injection is because they perceive it to be a humane medical procedure," said Dr Leonidas Koniaris, associate professor of surgery and senior author on the report. "Here we provide more evidence that it is anything but that."
Since the US Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in 1976, the United States has executed 1070 people, 901 of them by lethal injection, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre. The report is available at medicine.plosjournals.org.
Source: stuff.co.nz 24 April 2007
Prisoners "Aware" in Executions
Writing in the Lancet, the researchers, led by Dr Leonardis Koniaris, said: "We certainly cannot conclude that these inmates were unconscious and insensate. However, with no monitoring and with little use of the paralytic agent, any suffering of the inmate would be undetectable." They add: "The absence of training and monitoring, and the remote administration of drugs, coupled with eyewitness reports of muscle responses during execution, suggest that the current practice for lethal injection for execution fails to meet veterinary standards."
In an accompanying editorial, the Lancet said: "Capital punishment is not only an atrocity, but also a stain on the record of the world' most powerful democracy. Doctors should not be in the job of killing." American Medical Association ethical guidelines bar physicians from taking part in executions. But a survey has shown that 19% were willing to inject lethal drugs.
Source: news.bbc.co.uk 14 April 2005 © BBC MMV
California's Method of Execution To Be Changed
by Joel Rosenblatt
San Francisco - Governor Schwarzenegger of California said his administration will change the state's method of lethal injection to guarantee the execution procedure doesn't inflict pain or discomfort on the condemned. Officials will use a new screening process, train members of execution teams, standardise record keeping, and find death penalty experts to advise California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Mr Schwarzenegger said yesterday in a statement.
The use of lethal injection in California and Florida was ordered halted last week because of questions about the length of such executions, and the possibility of causing pain and discomfort before death. US District Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose, California, ruled that the method is unconstitutional because it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. "My administration will take immediate action to resolve court concerns which have cast legal doubt on California's procedure for carrying out the death penalty," Mr Schwarzenegger said in the statement. The federal government, the American military, and 38 states allow capital punishment, and all of those except Nebraska use lethal injection as the primary method of killing inmates sentenced to death, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.
Source: nysun.com Bloomberg News 19 December 2006
What factor is more important regarding executions: Do we care more about the suffering of the person being executed, or more about the discomfort of the people doing the observing?
Critics Condemn Electric Chair
by Richard Willing
The electric chair is on the hot seat.
The chair, America's preferred method of execution for most of the past century, is coming under increasing attack from opponents and supporters of capital punishment.
Death penalty foes say electrocuting human beings, even murderers, is inhumane and possibly unconstitutional. Supporters of capital punishment, meanwhile, fear that fallout from grisly electrocutions could undermine public acceptance of the death penalty.
Such sentiment has taken a toll on the device that Thomas Edison helped to create and that was made famous by a generation of gangster movies. Once used in 25 states and the District of Columbia to carry out more than 4,200 executions, the electric chair now is the sole means of execution in only two: Alabama and Nebraska. Ten others allow it as an alternative to lethal injection.
At a time when questions about whether the death penalty is being applied fairly have contributed to a drop in executions nationwide over the past 2 years, injection is widely seen as a more humane punishment. Of the 230 executions carried out across the USA since January 1999, only nine have been electrocutions.
Now, an Ohio execution scheduled for 12 September 2001 has put the electric chair in the spotlight again. A condemned murderer, John William Byrd Jr, 37, is demanding that the state kill him by using Ohio's 105-year-old electric chair rather than by lethal injection. Ohio law allows condemned inmates to choose between the two methods.
Byrd's lawyer says his client, who insists he is innocent in the slaying of a suburban Cincinnati convenience store clerk in 1983, has chosen electrocution to make a "statement" about the "barbarity of capital punishment."
"He says, 'I'm innocent in this case, and I'm not going to make it easy for them to put me down like some farm animal,'" says David Bodiker, Byrd's lawyer and the director of Ohio's public defender office. "His means of defiance is to say that society is going to have to do this in the most unpleasant manner possible."
The electric chair was called a humane alternative to hanging when it was developed in the 1880s. Alfred Southwick, a Buffalo dentist, proposed the idea after watching a drunken man stagger into an electrical generator and die quickly and apparently painlessly. Electrical pioneers such as Edison got into the act, carrying out experiments on animals to test the effectiveness of different dosages of current. The electric chair was first used in a prison in Auburn, New York, to dispatch William Kemmler of Buffalo in 1890. He had been convicted in the ax murder of his wife. To officials' surprise, the first jolt left Kemmler twitching and alive. A second charge was applied. "Strong men fainted and fell on the floor," the New York Herald reported of the witnesses.
William Kemmler, the chair's first victim 6 August 1890
Even so, the chair caught on. It soon replaced hanging or firing squads in many states. Famous criminals who died in the chair include Bruno Hauptmann, killer of the Lindbergh baby, who was executed in 1936; atomic bomb spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in 1953, and Ted Bundy, who was executed in 1989 for slaying three young women. He claimed he killed 16 more.
Hollywood used the chair as a prop. In Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), a tough guy convict played by James Cagney is reduced to sniveling whines as the shadow of the electric chair falls across his path. The chair became "shorthand for capital punishment" in America, says Richard Dieter, director of the Death penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.
The chair kills by sending at least 2,000 volts into the victim through an electrode placed on his head. The current stops the heart, then leaves the body via two "ground" electrodes on the victim's legs. Typically, the current is applied for about 1 minute. It is applied again if adrenaline restarts the heart. The voltage is more than 18 times that found in a typical household electrical outlet.
"When done correctly, the heart stops in 1/240th of a second - 24 times faster than the nervous system's ability to feel it," says Frederick Leuchter, a Maiden, Massachusetts, technician who helped several states remodel electric chairs in the 1980s. But if equipment malfunctions, "you're literally boiling the person to death," he says.
Botched electrocutions are not unusual. In 1990, Florida convict Jesse Tafero's hair appeared to catch fire as he sat in Old Sparky, as the state's chair is known. In 1999, 300-pound Alan "Tiny" Davis' nose bled as he died in Old Sparky. Later that year, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear a Florida convict's argument that electrocution amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment" and should be forbidden by the Constitution's 8th Amendment. Before the Supreme Court could act, the Florida Legislature gave condemned killers the option of being executed by chemical injection. That voided the Supreme Court case.
Thirty-six of the 38 states that permit capital punishment, as well as the US government and the military, have approved lethal injection. Among death penalty opponents, the switch to lethal injection is controversial. Most consider it more humane than electrocution. But some, such as Alabama state Senator Rodger Smitherman, fear that jurors will be more likely to impose the death penalty if it is carried out by injection rather than by electrocution. He has opposed efforts to make lethal injection an option in Alabama.
In Ohio, prison officials oppose using the electric chair for the Byrd execution. The machine has not been used since 1963, although it was refurbished in 1994, the year Byrd was originally scheduled to die. State law appears to require them to electrocute Byrd unless he changes his mind. Ohio officials say an electrocution would be "traumatic for prison staff," Bodiker says. I've got news for them: for the man in the chair, it's considerably past traumatic. Which is exactly John Byrd's point."
Source: USA Today Friday 7 September 2001; John Byrd's photo courtesy the Canadian Coalition against the Death Penalty ccadp.org
Update: John Byrd robbed a convenience store with two other men. The clerk, Monte Tewksbury, was fatally stabbed. Only Byrd received a death sentence as the actual murderer - based on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch (who was later freed for his cooperation). One of the other robbers, who was sentenced to 41 years in prison, has confessed that he was the murderer. His testimony has been discounted by the court since he cannot be tried again and is already serving a life sentence.
In 1994 Byrd was sent to the death house to await his execution. He wrote his will and was given his last meal (which he did not eat). He was there for a total of 36 hours and 32 minutes, before the US Supreme Court stopped the process 28 minutes before execution. Again - but this time days, not minutes before his execution - he has received an indefinite stay while his case is reviewed. Meanwhile, Ohio is in the process of passing legislation to remove the electric chair as an option.
Inmate Who Wanted the Chair Is Injected
by Richard Willing
John Byrd was executed by injection in Ohio despite his wish for death by the more extreme electric chair as a statement against capital punishment. Last year, Ohio changed its law to require execution by injection. Byrd, 38, was convicted of fatally stabbing a Cincinnati store clerk during a 1983 robbery. Byrd died insisting on his innocence.
Source: USA Today Wednesday 20 February 2002
Busy Times for Utah's Firing Squad
by Richard Wagenaar
Criminals chose to ridicule authorities to make the execution as painful as possible to all involved. Consequesntly, the men or women who make up the firing squad in the state of Utah can start polishing their guns. Two inmates have chosen to be executed by them, instead of a lethal injection. Utah is only one of a few states who still have this kind of legal butchery on the books. Experts think that the firing squad is rooted in the Mormon believe which describes that if someone who spoils another mans blood is to be forgiven by God, his blood must be spoiled.
On schedule to die are Troy Kell and Roberto Arguelles. Arguelles will be shot June 27 and Troy next day. Both men have chosen to stop any pending appeals and to die the rough way. Arguelles is under a death sentence for four sexually motivated murders, kidnapping, raping and then killing 3 girls and a woman. Troy murdered a black inmate. He is a white supremacist and during a stay in prison killed a black inmate and was caught on video during the murder. Both have been given the choice how to die, by lethal injection or by a bullet. Both chose to ridicule authorities and to make "the kill" as painful as possible to all involved, including the firing squad and prison guards.
It is not uncommon that prisoners on death row take that course. Earlier this year, Earl Bramblett was executed in the electric chair of the state Virginia. He could have chosen to drift into sleep on the execution gurney, with death pumped in his arm by an injection needle, but went out in a blaze of electricity to state his innocence. Other motives for preferring a terrible death like hanging on the gallows, the firing squad or the electric chair are simply a call for attention, the hope that its cruelty will lead to a stop of execution or even a pardon or even to brag in public about how tough someone is. And sometimes, it can be asked, it may not be clear to the condemned was he is choosing.
The choices of death row prisoners sometimes makes it hard on executioners; the government of each state trys their utmost to make it seem as easy as possible. Last year in almost all states the method of execution was changed to lethal injection. Dying on an execution gurney by a "medical" treatment is compared to going to sleep. No blood is flowing, no pain is felt. Human life is just extinguished, not murdered - even to an extent that witnesses come away with the feeling that no justice is done. But even this "easy" way has left a long trail of botched executions: the condemned reacting violently to the chemicals, equipment getting unhooked or problems finding a good vein for the injection. It is clear that even this is a "cruel and unusual punishment".
A more serious problem is that in this way the executions will be sterile and it is an incentive for more death sentences. If it is not an execution, but more a medical treatment to solve a problem to society, "sleep" will be easier for governors, members of the jury, prison personnel and others involved. You're not harming another human being; he's only going to a long sleep. The same trend is visible in China and Thailand, also keen on the firing squad.
Meanwhile, more and more questions can be asked about the death penalty in the United States. Most death row cases seemed to be troubled by bad lawyering, racial prejudices, witnesses who take the stand in exchange for a better deal for themselves, and major problems in getting reliable evidence (with several crime labs under investigation). But the system keeps asking for more death sentences. Getting someone on death row is just good politics. George W Bush is an example how far a happy executioner can go.
An easy death is not the way Arguelles and Troy have chosen. They will be strapped to a chair in dark clothing. Five men or women, mostly peace officers of the district in which the murders occurred, will take aim and fire four bullets and a blank in a human body. Death will be instant, if the aim is true.
Richard Wagenaar is from The Netherlands; special to Pravda
Source: english.pravda.ru 16 May 2003
If a capital crime is premeditated, knowing capture, conviction and death are possible outcomes, then (perhaps) a case could be made for the deterrent effect of capital punishment. When a crime is the result of inflamed tempers or drugs or of a robbery, thought to be easily able to be kept under control, which goes unexpectedly bad, then deterrence isn't the issue, revenge is.
The observers who come away from an easy death feeling "no justice is done" are interesting. If the criminals were tortured but not killed, would those witnesses feel that the cause of justice was better served?
Would a Large-Sized One of These Be a Humane Method of Capital Punishment?
For more articles on capital punishment, see also these pages found elsewhere in this section on prisons:
I would also like to recommend the excellent book Newjack, by Ted Conover, which details what it's like to be a prison guard. Some guards manage to hang on to their humanity but none leave the job without being profoundly affected.
For articles on white collar and petty crimes, injustice, capital punishment, race, executioners, freedom of the press, cheating, private prisons, punishment, retribution, prison
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