Not For the Fainthearted: The Weekly Scientist on Capital Punishment

Whether you agree with “an eye for an eye, a life for a life” or whether you think it will only lead to blind and dead people, most of us have a view on capital punishment. It’s hard to remain neutral about such an important, life-changing, death-imposing topic. Yes, you might say it’s a little bit like Marmite! But what is so good or bad about capital punishment? Does anyone of us actually know what causes death in each method of execution? This article will explore exactly this. I’m not going to lie; this is a grim topic…

Judicial hangings, if done right, are quick and arguably one of the least painful methods of capital punishment. The modern method of hanging is called the “Long Drop”, in which the length of the drop is calculated in order to break the subject’s neck. The knot of the noose is placed 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. Blood pressure drops down to nothing in about a second, and the subject loses consciousness. Brain death then takes several minutes to occur, and complete death can take more than 15 or 20 minutes, but the person at the end of the rope most likely can’t feel or experience any of it. If the distance is miscalculated, however, the person can either die of decapitation or suffocation. Suffocation is an excruciating experience, mentally as well as physically. The carotid arteries in the neck are compressed, leading to a swelling of the brain, which ends up plugging the top of the spinal column. The Vagal nerve is pinched, leading to the ‘Vagal reflex’, which stops the heart. The lack of oxygen getting to the lungs, due to compression of the trachea, is what eventually causes loss of consciousness. Death then follows in the same pattern as when the neck breaks, and the entire process takes between 5 and 20 minutes. The “Long Drop” has been used for the execution of Saddam Hussain.

The lethal injection is known as a “three drug cocktail” and was invented by a legislator in Oklahoma, who actually opposed the death system but wanted it to be as humane as possible. All drugs are administered intravenously with saline flushes occurring between them. The first drug (sodium thiopental) is an anaesthetic, which aims to put the person into a state of unconsciousness, thought to be so deep that the executionee is unable to feel any pain. The second drug (pancuronium bromide) results in complete muscle paralysis, which causes respiratory arrest since the diaphragm, a muscle essential for pulling air into the lungs, stops working. The final injection is potassium chloride, which floods the heart with charged particles that interrupt its electrical signalling and stop it from beating. This final drug is known to be hugely painful, but as long as the person is under the anaesthetic they won’t feel it (in theory at least…). Nevertheless, sometimes the anaesthetic is not strong enough, causing the executionee to wake up; due to the paralytic, they are incapable of showing that they’re in extraordinary amounts of pain. The humanity of this method is therefore debateable. This method has been used for the execution of the Washington Sniper.

Death by electrocution entails strapping the individual to a chair and attaching electrodes to their leg and other parts of the body. An electrically stimulated iron cap is put onto their head, under which a wet sponge is placed to help conduct the electricity. 1700 – 2500 Volts are pumped through the individual’s body for a certain amount of time. After this, a doctor checks whether the person is dead; if not, the process is repeated. Problems include the subject’s head being set on fire, some have been able to scream despite being gagged, and the suffering and contortions are so visibly obvious that in many instances members of the audience have fainted or vomited. Ted Bundy, a serial killer in the 70s, was executed using this method.

Gas chambers were used as a method of capital punishment in America in the 1920s, and there have been some reports of their use in North Korea and even by Napoleon in the early 19th century. Subjects killed by this method are strapped into a chair within the gas chamber, which is subsequently filled with a poisonous gas. This is usually hydrogen cyanide, generated by dropping cyanide pellets into sulphuric acid. Subjects find themselves unable to breathe in enough oxygen to sustain themselves and actually die in much the same manner as a person who is suffocated to death. However this method is much more agonizing than suffocation. When it was tested on rabbits, they contorted themselves, beat their heads against the sides of the container and threw themselves into all kinds of frenzy due to the pain. Alas, individuals who are strapped down are unable to perform as many “gymnastics” as they might want to. Other complications involve all of the mental agony associated with being suffocated to death. This method was used to kill countless Jews, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled and many others during the Holocaust.

A much rarer method of capital punishment is death by stoning or ‘lapidation’, currently used for sexual offenses in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria and Iran. The subject is bound in white cloth with their hands tied behind their backs, then buried up to their waist (if male), chest or neck (if female). Stones thrown must not be so big that one or two could kill a person, but not so small that you could call it a pebble (so about the size of a tangerine). If the conviction is based on the prisoner’s confession, the law says that the presiding judge should cast the first stone. If the conviction is based on a witness’s testimony, the witness throws the first stone. Those who have confessed to their crimes and have managed to escape are allowed to go free, not that this happens very often. Stoning to death takes up to an hour. Because it is slow, this is a form of execution by torture. In 2008, this method was used in Somalia for the execution of Aisho Dhuhulow in a football stadium in front of over 1,000 people. Amnesty International later learned that the girl was thirteen years old and had reported that she was gang-raped by three men.

In this article, I have merely scratched the surface of these methods of capital punishment. Other methods are equally interesting and gruesome. If you’re interested in knowing more I, as always, would encourage you to look into these for yourself. Then, when you have formed an opinion on the subject, you will at least have the knowledge to back it up.

Doñah Sabbagh

3 Comments on this post.
  • Dorina Lisson (ACADP)
    24 November 2010 at 00:02
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    Equally interesting and gruesome are the stealth execution-team, whose ‘job’ it is to make sure the ‘kill’ is achieved. Only crazed sadists are able to perform this abhorrent, disgusting and vile act of barbarism, and still sleep at night.

  • Alan
    25 November 2010 at 23:40
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    I (and several friends) have served as a citizen witness to executions in Virginia where either lethal injection or electrocution was the method used. The lethal injection left the inmate deeply unconscious from the first drug within about 20 seconds of it being administered through the IV line. For the electrocutions, the inmates (Paul Powell and Earl Bramblett) had no sense of what was going on after the first second of application of 1,750 volts at 8 amps through the head electrode. Both were pronounced dead after two jolts and neither caught fire for that matter. Their hands tightened into fists and their skin turned red, but that was all. It was much more humane than what they respectively did to their victims.

  • Riahna
    6 December 2010 at 20:31
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    This is seemingly horrific; yet totally interesting. To hear such things and for many of the events to be so recent puts me on edge (reasons being it is inhumane and terrifying). I am pleased that you have written this article for it means I do not get the full intensity of the situations, though unfortunately, you did. I am waiting with impatience if I am honest for your next subject! I am a big fan of yours, good luck on your next write.

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