Global executions are at an all-time low. Capital punishment is far less common nowadays than it was centuries ago, but for those that are executed, is it any more humane and ethical? Doctors and philosophers have asked this question since at least the eighteenth century, but a definitive answer has never been found.
Each country that executes has its own standard that they must uphold, but today we’re primarily focusing on the role of execution in the United States, the most notorious of those countries. The US is not the world’s foremost capital punisher; as of 2019, that title goes to China. But, the situation in the US is somewhat paradoxical. As a global symbol of freedom and human rights, America’s recent history of sometimes brutal executions has renewed enthusiasm for finding an ethical way to kill. Let’s get started.
The Quest for Better Executions
Capital punishment has been a part of the world’s legal systems for millennia. Initially, execution was viewed as the only way to punish the most serious offenders, as the only practical alternative, banishment, wasn’t seen as severe enough for the most heinous crimes. But executions have changed immensely over the years, especially in the past century or so.
You see, there are a handful of reasons that countries and their citizens seek to uphold the death penalty. For one, some people view death as the only real retribution for the most horrendous offenses. They say that serial killers and other deplorables deserve punishment as harsh as the acts they committed against others. Many people simply can’t stomach the idea of spending tax dollars to keep murderers alive in jail.
On the other hand, executions have been used as deterrence against the most egregious crimes. Particularly in the Middle Ages, authoritarian rulers felt that brutal and public executions served an essential role in establishing authority in their lands and scaring off potential criminals. But theories on crime and punishment have developed immensely since then, with many criminologists claiming that severe punishment actually leads to a decline in civility and an increase in chaos.
Throughout this development in capital punishment, execution methods have also changed as politicians, philosophers, doctors, and others have sought more effective ways to take human life. But, because of the role of executions as a deterrent, there has been a lot of disagreement on what constitutes an effective killing. The popular methods have been beheadings and hangings, as their graphic nature sends a clear message to observers. But, in the past several centuries, more countries have determined that “effective” actually means ethical.
Perhaps the earliest determination to find a more ethical way to kill was in pre-revolutionary France during Louis XVI’s reign. Joseph Guillotine proposed that the French king find a method of torture less gruesome than the breaking wheel, which broke the condemned person’s bones while bludgeoning them to death. The physician Guillotine didn’t invent the famous French death machine, but the device bears his name due to his role in inspiring it.
While France moved to the guillotine, the United States used hangings for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But hangings were often brutal in their own right. In the late nineteenth century, a string of particularly cruel public hangings in New York led to an interest in finding their own “ethical” execution machine.
So, the New York state senate initiated a commission to investigate the most humane and practical method of capital punishment. The New York commission determined that electrocution was the most humane form of execution, and, in 1888, they built the first electric chair.
The Electric Chair and Other Popular Methods
Over the next hundred years, from the nineteenth to the late twentieth century, many countries outlawed the death penalty. But America, still steeped in its wild-west mentality, focused its energies on incrementally improving executions. The electric chair became the most common form following its initial use in 1890 and remained the sole method of execution in many states before the rise of lethal injection.
While electrocution is still considered more humane than hanging, decades of observation seemed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it could cause severe pain. We’ll spare you the most gruesome details, but, trust us, the disfiguring effects on the body are stomach-turning. Perhaps the mildest example of the pain caused by electrocution is that the skin and internal organs get hot enough to burn anyone that touches them, even causing blistering. The last time a judge ordered death by electric chair was in 1966, but it has remained a secondary option in some states. In fact, the most recent electrocution took place in February of 2020 in Tennessee, where a condemned chose the electric chair over lethal injection.
Though less common than the electric chair, execution by gas chamber rose in popularity in the 1920s, when Nevada officials attempted to execute a prisoner via cyanide gas. The method was a bit flawed at first, as they tried to kill the man by pumping the poisonous gas into his jail cell while he slept, but they determined that the room wouldn’t contain the gas well enough to actually kill him. So, they constructed an airtight chamber within which to carry out the execution.
By all accounts, though, this was not a less painful way to die. According to a doctor from Johns Hopkins medical school, “The person is unquestionably experiencing pain and extreme anxiety…The sensation is similar to the pain felt by a person during a heart attack, where essentially the heart is being deprived of oxygen.” Again, we’ll refrain from sharing the more grotesque details of this method, but it often leaves the dead person disfigured and in excruciating pain. Several states have found this method cruel and unusual, and it hasn’t been used in over twenty years. However, as of 2015, a few states are exploring using nitrogen gas instead of cyanide gas, though only when the drugs necessary for lethal injection can’t be found.
Finally, the firing squad is likely the oldest of these “modern” methods, as it began as a common form of execution during wartime after the advent of firearms. The process is quite simple. The inmate is typically bound to a chair and blindfolded, with a piece of paper pinned over his heart, giving the shooters a target to aim at.
The firing squad stands about 20 feet away and use .30 caliber rifles. At least one member of the firing squad is given a gun with a blank round, and everyone fires simultaneously to ensure that no one knows who dealt the fatal blow. The prisoner typically dies from a ruptured heart or torn lung, but, in the worst-case scenario, they die slowly from blood loss. The only state that currently authorizes the firing squad is Utah, which reauthorized the method in 2015.
Lethal injection caught on much later than the rest of these modern methods. The first state to legalize lethal injection was Oklahoma in 1977, and it was first used in Texas in 1982. In the following years, it became the preferred method in all 32 states with the death penalty.
The method includes a cocktail of three different chemicals, each meant to play a specific role in ensuring that the condemned person dies painlessly and quickly. The needle is inserted into the inmate’s veins, and that needle is attached to several intravenous drips. The first injection is sodium thiopental— an anesthetic, which puts the inmate to sleep. Next is pavulon or pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the inmate’s entire muscle system and stops breathing. Finally, the flow of potassium chloride stops the heart.
At the time it was introduced, it was seen as the final solution for humane execution. After all, if the anesthetic works properly, then the inmate should feel no pain, but there have been a whole host of reasons that keep this process from going as smoothly as it’s meant to. For one, the chemicals used in the injection are banned throughout much of the world, and they have a limited shelf life. However, when they’re unable to acquire the proper chemicals, they often make do with whatever untested combination they have available, and that can lead to severe complications.
For instance, in 2014, the state of Oklahoma was unable to procure sodium thiopental, their preferred anesthetic. Instead, they used something called midazolam, which had never been used in an execution. The prison official struggled to locate a usable vein in which to inject the cocktail and summoned a doctor for assistance. Though technically only there to observe and supervise, the doctor stepped in to assist in finding a vein. Once they felt they had adequately struck a vein, the injection of the anesthetic began. After several minutes, the observing doctor reported that the man was unconscious, so they initiated the two fatal injections. Except, shortly after that, the man attempted to sit up from the gurney he was strapped to. He even uttered a few words for everyone in the area to hear.
Nearly 20 minutes after the inmate had spoken, the doctor attempted to halt the execution because the anesthetic had clearly not worked. But it was too late. Ten minutes after it was stopped, the condemned man died of a heart attack. Frankly, if you want to be chilled to your bones, then search the story and read it yourself. It’s dark and difficult to digest, but it also paints a stark and vivid picture of just how horribly wrong a lethal injection can go when it isn’t handled perfectly.
Unfortunately, this kind of “botched” execution is not exactly rare. Lethal injection is considered botched when it fails to go as planned in almost any way. That is a broad stroke to paint with such a delicate thing, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Lethal executions have been hailed as “quiet” and “painless” by judges on the US Supreme Court, but that often isn’t the case. In fact, a 2010 study found that almost 8 percent of lethal injections between 1984 and 2010 were botched in some way. Proponents claim that number is inflated, but even the most conservative tallies place the number at around 4 percent.
The Doctor’s Opinion
One vitally important piece has been missing throughout the last century of executions— the doctor’s opinion. Throughout much of the world, doctors must take the Hippocratic Oath, an oath of ethics first widely publicized by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. The pledge contains many ethical standards that medical professionals must uphold, chief among them that the doctor will “first, do no harm.” Because of this oath, practicing medical professionals cannot design methods of execution or directly participate in them.
The man who first designed the drug cocktail for lethal injection was Oklahoma’s chief medical examiner and a forensic pathologist by trade. He only participated in the process because he felt that he could make executions more ethical. However, he also clearly expressed that a quick and painless death is only possible when the cocktail is administered correctly. But that’s not always easy.
Because of the Hippocratic Oath, doctors and physicians never actually administer lethal injections. Instead, that part is done by correctional facility staff, who generally lack any training as medical professionals. Perfectly striking a vein is not easy in the most serene circumstances. To complicate matters, though, many inmates struggle as they lie strapped to the gurney, awaiting their death. What’s more, many inmates have damaged veins due to intravenous drug use, making it even more challenging to strike the right vein.
In many cases, botched lethal injections resulted from needles penetrating muscle tissue instead of veins, as was the case in Oklahoma in 2014. This means that the anesthetic doesn’t enter the bloodstream, rendering it practically useless while the poisonous compounds take effect.
The doctor’s role is currently limited to standing onsite to observe the execution process and declare the condemned person deceased. As it now stands, there is no clear end in sight where doctors could administer the injection themselves or improve the process in any way.
While the recent controversies regarding lethal injection have sparked a renewed interest in finding an ethical way to kill, there simply aren’t many options. Or, at least, there aren’t many new options. Most conversations about improving capital punishment compare lethal injection to the other methods discussed in this video, and they all have their shortcomings and advantages.
As we’ve mentioned, a handful of states still have multiple authorized execution methods, including the firing squad, the electric chair, and gas chambers. Each of these methods has been used at least once since 1999, but, while some seem to clearly have less risk of “botching,” there is a lot of debate over whether that makes them more humane. Proponents of lethal injection claim that it is the most humane option as long as the drugs are administered properly into a functional vein. That is seemingly true, but a fail rate near 8 percent suggests that the process isn’t that simple.
The method with the lowest fail rate is the firing squad, though it’s only been used in 34 state-sanctioned executions. While technically none of those 34 have been botched, there isn’t any data available to suggest how quickly the condemned inmates died.
The electric chair has been used more than any other method, and with a relatively low botch rate around 2 percent. But prisoner’s violent reactions and bodily mutilation suggest that, despite being quick, this method is far from painless.
As for gas chambers, it became clear that cyanide gas was immensely painful. Nitrogen gas seems to be less so, but it causes death by asphyxiation, which many people believe causes immense pain in the brain, heart, and lungs.
Perhaps the most unexpected entry to the list of possible alternatives is that famous French machine, the guillotine. The guillotine was last used in France in 1977, shortly before the country outlawed capital punishment. There’s no doubt that the guillotine would be a terrifying death, particularly at the moment before the blade is dropped, but there is almost no chance of botching. It seems to be a quick death, but the act of beheading is inarguably barbaric, gruesome, and, some might say, cruel.
Cruel and Unusual
The eighth amendment of the US Constitution states that “cruel and unusual punishment [shall not] be inflicted.” The widely-accepted application of this wording is that people should not be subjected to pain beyond the level necessary to complete the task. Many inmates have utilized this amendment to challenge the methods of execution, claiming that lethal injection and other methods do, in fact, cause gratuitous pain.
This claim is due in large part to the chemical cocktail used for injections. As we discussed earlier, when injected imperfectly, the anesthetic can fail to effectively render the inmate unconscious. Furthermore, the second substance, the paralytic, can be extremely painful if it is injected before the sedative has done its job, leading to a suffocating feeling for the recipient. This chemical plays no role in the inmate’s physiological execution, only serving to paralyze the body so that observers don’t have to watch the dying person writhe in pain as their heart stops. According to many lawsuits, this is the textbook definition of gratuitous pain.
However, the US Supreme Court has ruled that it is not enough for inmates to claim that any particular execution method causes unnecessary pain. Instead, the courts have placed on the inmates the responsibility to determine a different approach that would reasonably include less pain. This ruling is not only legally shaky, but it’s also scientifically impossible given the current practice of execution.
The decision that death row inmates must determine a less painful means for execution is entirely unique. As a 2019 study by Yale so eloquently claims, we know that “jumping out of an airplane at 30,000 feet without a parachute presents a substantial risk of serious harm…without comparison to the risk of serious harm presented by jumping out of an airplane from 3 feet.” In other words, it is possible to prove that one form of execution includes gratuitous harm without demonstrating another method that poses less harm.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, there is no medically accepted definition of what severe pain is. EEG monitoring tools can scan the brain to determine whether a person is in pain, but there is no measure of how intense that pain is. One thing these brain scanners could do, though, is to clearly show whether an anesthetic injection was actually working. If it is, then the brain scanner wouldn’t register any pain, and injections can proceed. However, judges throughout the country have rejected these brain scanners’ use, rendering it impossible for anyone to prove whether inmates actually experience pain in their moment of death.
Clearly, the process of finding an ethical way to kill has reached something of a snag. People are understandably reluctant to try new, untested methods that could have worse results than those currently used. But this begs a bigger question of capital punishment. Is there any way to execute a human that doesn’t involve gratuitous pain? If there is, how can we discover it without first testing those that don’t work? If all methods involve pain, how can we accurately determine which is least severe and most humane? Most fundamentally, is execution inherently cruel and unusual?
Don’t expect any clear answer to these questions anytime soon. While executions have recently slowed down in the United States, the US Supreme Court’s precedent makes it highly unlikely that the issue will be resolved for decades to come.