Chamblee54

Methods Of Capital Punishment

Posted in Library of Congress, The Death Penalty by chamblee54 on May 16, 2017


This chamblee54 feature discusses various methods used to put condemned criminals to death. This report gets a bit gross at times. If you want to skip over the text, you will be excused. Chamblee54 has written about lethal injection problems one, two, three, four, five, six, seven times. In 2007, the New York Times published The Needle and the Damage Done, which discusses many of these issues in great detail. Pictures today are from The Library of Congress.

One of the odder parts of tonight’s scheduled execution is the request of J.W. Ledford to be shot, instead of poisoned. Al Jazeera is one of many to report the story. JW Ledford Jr lawyers want firing squad, not injection “J.W. Ledford, 45, suffers from chronic nerve pain that has been treated with increasing doses of the prescription drug gabapentin for more than a decade, his lawyers said in a federal case filed on Thursday. They cited experts who said long-term exposure to gabapentin alters brain chemistry, making pentobarbital unreliable to render him unconscious and devoid of sensation or feeling. “Accordingly, there is a substantial risk that Mr Ledford will be aware and in agony as the pentobarbital attacks his respiratory system, depriving his brain, heart, and lungs of oxygen as he drowns in his own saliva,” the legal case said. That would violate the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, Ledford’s lawyers argued.”

Is the firing squad more humane than lethal injection? One is certainly messier than the other. The appearance to the observer is important. People want executions to be neat and tidy, with the executee in minimal pain. This is one reason for chemical agent number two in the three drug lethal cocktail. A paralytic is used, so that people won’t see the soon-to-be-deceased thrashing about as the heart is chemically shut down.

The firing squad is fast. Ammunition does not need to be purchased from a compounding pharmacy. Any pain will be over very quickly. In his book “In his book ‘Elephants on Acid: And Other Bizarre Experiments’, Alex Boese states that in the 1938 execution of John Deering, the prison physician monitoring the inmate’s heartbeat reported that the time between the shots and complete cessation of rhythm was a mere 15 seconds.” The idea is for the marksmen to shoot the prisoner in the heart.

Hanging is another time honored method of execution. If done properly, it is very efficient. Of course this is the government at work, so things do not always go smoothly. Hanging has unfortunate visuals, and is associated with lynching. It is not well thought of today.

“The modern method of judicial hanging is called the long drop. … In the long drop, those planning the execution calculate the drop distance required to break the subject’s neck based on his or her weight, height and build. They typically aim to get the body moving quickly enough after the trap door opens to produce between 1,000 and 1,250 foot-pounds of torque on the neck when the noose jerks tight. This distance can be anywhere from 5 to 9 feet. With the knot of the noose placed at the left side of the subject’s neck, under the jaw, the jolt to the neck at the end of the drop is enough to break or dislocate a neck bone called the axis, which in turn should sever the spinal cord.”

“Unfortunately, history shows that hanging is relatively easy to botch, particularly if the executioners make a mistake in their calculations. A rope that is too long can result in decapitation, whilst one that is too short can cut off breathing and blood flow through the carotid arteries in the neck. In these circumstances loss of consciousness is not always as quick, and the condemned can end up struggling for nearly 30 minutes.”

Hanging is still used in Iran. In Iran, prisoners are usually pulled up by their necks with the use of cranes. “It takes them many minutes to die, it’s a way of torturing them along with the execution,” Amiry-Moghaddam said. “Two years ago, a man had survived 14 minutes of hanging before dying. So hanging is not intended as the standard way of momentary pain. It’s not that they just die, it is a slow strangulation.” Many death penalty advocates approve of the added suffering.

The twentieth century gave us two modern methods of offing the condemned, the gas chamber, and the electric chair. “Lethal gas takes too long; the 1992 lethal-gas execution of Donald Harding in Arizona was so long — 11 minutes — and so grotesque that the attorney general threw up and the warden threatened to quit if he were required to execute someone by gas again. The electric chair often results in horrible odors and burns; in Florida, in the 1990s, at least two inmates heads’ caught fire, and the chair routinely left the body so thoroughly cooked that officials had to let the corpse cool before it could be removed.”

“First used to execute axe-murderer William Kemmler in 1890, a high voltage alternating current is applied to the body of the criminal, typically starting at 2,000 volts and 5 amps with the voltage varying periodically. This causes instant contraction and rigidity of the muscles, leading to a cessation of heart and lung activity.

The practice figured prominently in a dispute between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse regarding the relative merits of direct vs. alternating current. Edison sought to prove that the latter was too dangerous and so decided to equip the new Electric Chair at America’s ‘Sing Sing’ prison with one of the his competitor’s AC generators. Unfortunately the inexperienced executioners drastically underestimated the amount of electricity required to effectively kill Kemmler. At first they only succeeded in burning him for 17 seconds, at the end of which he was still twitching. It took a second jolt for a further 70 seconds before he was finally pronounced dead. Westinghouse was later heard to comment, “they could have done better with an axe”.”

The Guillotine was popular in France for many years. At first glance, it would seem to be efficient, though messy. Closer examination reveals some problems. “Often the blade didn’t do its job and the victim was only injured. He would then either bleed to death or the blade would have to be cranked up and dropped again. … But even when the blade was quick and efficient, many witnesses said the victim’s head didn’t die instantly. Reports of grimacing, facial twitches, blinking eyes, mouth movements, and even speech from the severed head are numerous.” (A commenter to the linked post disputes this. Rumors that Robespierre was executed face up are probably false.)

“In 1905, Dr. Beaurieux reported on his close examination of Henri Languille’s guillotine execution. While he watched, the blade did its thing and Languille’s head dropped into the basket. Beaurieux had luck on his side when the head landed on its severed neck in an upright position. This allowed him to observe Languille’s face without having to touch the head or set it up right.

“The eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds” “I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions……but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.” “Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves.”

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