Criminal Justice

Which Execution Method Causes the Least Discomfort (to the Public)?

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Judging from yesterday's oral arguments over what standard to use in determining whether an execution method violates the Eighth Amendment, the Supreme Court is not inclined to order changes in the way states put people to death. But the arguments touched on a point that struck me the last time I wrote about these cases: Decisions about execution methods have less to do with the comfort of the condemned man than with the comfort of the people watching him die.

The currently favored protocol involves the injection of three substances: sodium thiopental to render the prisoner unconscious, pancuronium bromide to induce paralysis, and potassium chloride to stop his heart. The main criticism of this method is that if the first drug is not administered properly, the prisoner will experience suffocation from the second and severe pain from the third without being able to signal his suffering. During yesterday's arguments, Linda Greenhouse reports in The New York Times, Justice John Paul Stevens said he was "terribly troubled" by the use of the pancuronium bromide, which he called "almost totally unnecessary." Stevens said the only point of this drug seemed to be preventing the prisoner from involuntarily twitching or grimacing, thereby upsetting the witnesses. Yet replacing the three drugs with an overdose of a long-acting barbiturate, as suggested by the prisoners challenging the method, could make executions less "dignified," Chief Justice John Roberts suggested.  

In fact, as New York Times legal reporter Adam Liptak noted in a background story last week, the possibility of "distressing and disruptive muscle contractions" was one reason states did not adopt the single-drug method to begin with. Corrections officials also worried that the process "might take a long time." Again, both of these concerns relate to how the execution is perceived, not how it is experienced by the condemned prisoner (who would be unconscious), which is ostensibly what the current constitutional argument is about. State officials also did not want to upset the public by executing people with a method essentially the same as the one veterinarians used to euthanize animals. "These days," Liptak notes, critics of the three-drug method "make the opposite argument," saying "death row inmates deserve to be treated at least as well as animals."

Then again, the choice to use lethal injection of any kind, as opposed to older, less sanitized methods, is mainly about appearances:

Some experts on executions say the debate over which chemicals to use is the wrong one. States have adopted a process that appears humane because it looks like medical treatment, [Fordham University law professor Deborah] Denno said. But looks can be deceiving, she added.

"To me," Professor Denno said, "the firing squad is the most humane and perceived to be the most brutal."

Meanwhile, A.P. reports, China plans to switch from executions by gunshot to executions by lethal injection, which "is considered more humane," according to an official of the Supreme People's Court. Progress? 

My columns on the lethal injection debate are here and here. Ron Bailey offers a somewhat different perspective here.

NEXT: Ron Paul

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  1. If suffering of the executee is the main consideration (as it should be) the best method is what I understand the Russkis used to do – bullet in the back of the head by surprise upon receipt of the results of the appeal.

  2. Death by chocolate!

  3. We should bring back the guillotine!

  4. Proxy case actually about death penalty and not the method. 5-4 result with individual Justices voting predictably.

  5. Vaccuum cleaner hose hooked up to the tailpipe of an idling 1962 Chrysler.

  6. We should bring back the guillotine!

    Actually, why isnt that method used more often. i mean, don’t get me wrong i’m against the death penalty, but if you’re going to publicaly kill someone it seems to be a quick and effecient way to do so. And what suffering is there? just onle clean cut and you’re done. And think of how cheap it would be, most of the work is done by gravity…

  7. Futurama reference = teh AUSOME!!!

  8. I think that a lot of reason why they do things like the gas chamber and lethal injection instead of hanging or firing squad or guillotine is that it tends to leave a prettier corpse.

  9. Guillotine is the most proven, most sure, probably least painful method of execution.

    Unfortunately, it’s perceived as barbaric and so they use the uncertain, possibly excruciating but seemingly “scientific” and modern looking method of chemical injection to kill the convicted.

  10. I support the death penalty in principle if not in practice. Some people just need killin’.

    We should hang people on the courthouse square.
    The deterrent effect would be greater, the vengeance more cathartic, and people could feel responsible for their support of the State

  11. The problem with beheading is that your brain lives for a few minutes after and thus observes it’s headless body from the basket. Sometimes the people say interesting things but it’s hard to hear them because, well, no air comes out. Not humane.

    Now, if you must execute people, it should be short and sweet and to the point. I like SIV’s vision of the courthouse gallows in Tombstone.

    I also submit that a 20 year trial before the hanging sort of defeats the purpose.

  12. I oppose lethal injection.Electrocution and the gas chamber were the “scientific” methods.
    Lethal injection is the “therapeutic”.

    Hanging or the firing squad are both “humane” and traditional. Beheading is a little messy and a lot of people don’t like the sight of large quantities of blood.

  13. I like SIV’s vision of the courthouse gallows in Tombstone.

    Tombstone? I believe this was quite common throughout the country until the beginning of the last century.

  14. Unfortunately, it’s perceived as barbaric and so they use the uncertain, possibly excruciating but seemingly “scientific” and modern looking method of chemical injection to kill the convicted.

    The death penalty in general is barbaric, you might as well do it right.

    Think of the saving as well. No need to hire a physician when everyone can the guys head is detatched it’s safe to bet he’s dead. Even a bullet to the head wastes a bullet, with the guillotine all you have to do is hose that shit off and use it again and again.

    If i was to be put to death that’s the way i’d want to go, hell my will could even stipulate that i want the head part of my remains to be frozen so i could be brought back or tranfsered to an artificial body in the future. The sentence is death, nothing says you have to stay dead, they get to kill me and i get a bit of a vacation, win-win. Is there a downside to it?

    besides if was good enough for French Kings and John the Baptist it’s good enough for me.

    I think i’ll make itpart of my platform.

    Shane for president in 2012, we’ll cut your fucking heads off!

  15. Killing the brain instantly is the least cruel.

    20 ton weight crushing the head during a blow job?

  16. Man… I’d take the firing squad over lethal injection any day. No blindfold. I want to look shooters in the eye. You only die once. A few moments of pain is inconsequential. Be a man, die on your feet.

  17. If we want to pretend we’re being humane, what is wrong with execution by morphine overdose? Would that send the wrong message in the war on drugs, or something?

  18. 20 ton weight crushing the head during a blow job?

    Depends on the head…

  19. Wow! I’ve always been dying to know why the hell they didn’t JUST sedate convicts to death, instead of all this nonsense with a drug “cocktail” and paralysis and shit*. I myself have regained consciousness during minor surgery, though the dose of drugs they administered to put me back under wiped out my own memory of the incident (and of much of the rest of that day). It does happen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if executed people have sometimes regained consciousness.

    * Shit is possibly a specific reason to chemically paralyze someone. Wouldn’t want those bowel and bladder muscles relaxing as the convict fades away…

  20. Tombstone? I believe this was quite common throughout the country until the beginning of the last century.

    Yes but you can still see the gallows in the courtyard at Tombstone. It’s the visual reminder I meant.

  21. Guillotine bothers me because the head would probably be conscious long enough to feel the fall into the basket. A two-foot fall to the face has got to hurt. Stupid, I know, but the thought of that final insult just horrifies me.

    I always thought a liter of morphine in an IV drip would do the job nicely. Just the sting of the needle and fade away.

    I suppose for a truly painless execution you really need a small C-4 charge at the back of the head. The shock wave travels faster than nerve impulses, so the convict would never feel it coming.

  22. I always wanted to die by a lethal dose of liquid LSD and hope for cool ride. Just start pumping it in with a catheter.

  23. SCOTUS is straining at gnats. The problem with the death penalty isn’t the method, it’s the unreliability of the conviction process.

    I’d advocate death by old age, so if new evidence shows up and the prisoner turns out to be innocent you can do something besides shrug.

  24. What about making a death row inmate sit through about eight hours of government hearings. I mean, after that you really don’t care how they kill you.

  25. A two-foot fall to the face has got to hurt. Stupid, I know, but the thought of that final insult just horrifies me.

    what if you landed onto a pillow of silk? Be kinda nice then.

  26. what if you landed onto a pillow of silk? Be kinda nice then.

    Foam or feather filling?

  27. Firing squad. Afterall, shouldn’t it hurt just a little? The guillotine is rather quick too, but I guess viewing Frankenstein in the coffin isn’t very dignified. As long as the death penalty is legal, why not see it for what it is?

  28. Heroin

  29. I’ve always been dying to know why the hell they didn’t JUST sedate convicts to death, instead of all this nonsense with a drug “cocktail” and paralysis and shit*.

    No kidding. I’ve sat with two of my dogs when they were euthanized (massive dose of sodium pentothal?), and I have no doubt it is quick and painless. They were both gone before the syringe emptied.

  30. We should hang people on the courthouse square.

    Public hanging was the prescribed method of execution in Florida untill 1926 or so. Then the electric chair was adopted and the event moved indoors out of public view.

  31. We should hang people on the courthouse square.

    The PDRK fills soccor stadiums with folks who want to witness some good, ol’ fashioned, public executions. Not a good idea.

  32. We should hang people on the courthouse square.
    The deterrent effect would be greater, the vengeance more cathartic, and people could feel responsible for their support of the State.

    Exactly right. Check out Ernest Van den Haag — the definitive statement on the subject.

  33. Here’s the link:

    http://www.antiqbook.com/boox/yest/052373.shtml
    Ernest van den Haag – “Punishing Criminals”

  34. “””what if you landed onto a pillow of silk? Be kinda nice then.”””

    With the words “The End” facing up.

  35. Why not let them choose how to die? And why has nobody suggested autoerotic asphyxiation?

  36. The best ,quick and humane method of execution is by hanging if performed by an experienced hangman. .The person will die within seconds,apparently without much struggling.

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