Hanging, Electrocution, and Shooting: Death Penalty Methods Compared

Across the globe, the movement to abolish the death penalty has gained momentum over the past few decades, and with it is an intense debate over which methods executioners should use to execute prisoners. This post will compare three specific methods of the death penalty hanging, electrocution, and shooting and outline the details and arguments for each method from a cultural, scientific, and ethical standpoint. Only certain countries around the world still retain capital punishment, such as hanging in India, electrocution in the United States, and shooting in China.

 

In India, the death penalty is still alive and well. However, there is no official data or statistics regarding execution in India. 1 Executions were almost completely halted from 1995 to 2012, whereas from 1985-1995, the number of executions averaged three per year. India has always voted against the United Nations General Assembly resolutions to rid of death penalty among other countries in Asia, and in 2012, three men were executed for terrorism-related charges.2 The country fails to recognize that the death penalty is inhumane and a violation of human rights. The two main reasons for imposing punishment are as follows: the wrongdoer should suffer for the crimes they have committed, and by imposing punishment on wrongdoers, there is a hope that others will be discouraged from committing wrongful acts, as well. Offenses wrongful enough to permit the death penalty include criminal conspiracy, murder, anti-terrorism, waging war against the government, and even rape.3

 

The world’s most frequent executioner is China. In 2010, China put more prisoners to death than the rest of the world combined. It is estimated that China kills about 5,000 prisoners annually, and most of these death sentences are carried out by lethal injection or a gunshot to the head.4 China’s frequent use of death penalty is due to the troubled court system, as well as a national policy that allows capital punishment for crimes that would not be considered to warrant the death penalty in other countries.4 These offences include corruption, embezzling, drug-related crimes, and even theft on a large enough scale. In one case, a Chinese telecommunications executive was sentenced to death for accepting bribes.4 Shooting and lethal injection are the only two methods authorized by China’s Criminal Procedure Law of 1996.5 As of 2010, shooting executions have been discontinued, and lethal injection has been declared a more humane form of execution. Also, lethal injection is cheaper than a firing squad. This factor, as well as the profit, ease of secrecy, and reduction of family complaints due to massive disfigurement caused by shots motivated the switch-over to lethal injection.5

 

The United States ranks fifth in the world for the amount of executions performed each year, and is the only developed Western nation that uses the death penalty.4 The United States is unique in that each state applies its own criminal law, so while some states have abolished the death penalty, other states have not. Of the fifty states, twenty have abolished the death penalty, as of 2014.6 The states that use electrocution as method of execution are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Only Oklahoma and Utah use execution by firing squad, and only New Hampshire utilized hanging as a method of death penalty. Electrocution was decidedly a more humane and quicker alternative to hanging. However, this method can inflict unnecessary pain, indignity, and physical mutilation (e.g., severe external burning and bleeding). Outside of the United States, electrocution has not been widely adopted. Although lethal injection is the more popular method of the death penalty, many inmates prefer an alternative method due to the high rate of botched executions over the years.7

 

Inmate waiting to be electrocuted in the chair in late 19th century.   https://www.britannica.com/topic/electrocution

These three forms of execution can also be examined from a scientific angle through a comparison of how each method kills the victim’s body, how they can be botched and medically prolong death, and which can lead to the most physical pain. First, death by shooting can cause death in a variety of ways depending on the guns used and the location of the bullet wound, but in ideal circumstances, this method is the most instantaneous and painless. In the United States’ method of the firing squad, the doctor locates the inmate’s heart and marks it for the five executioners, who each aim for the chest area, because it’s both a cleaner death than a headshot and provides a larger area for the shooters to aim their guns.9 The bullets rupture the heart and the prisoner quickly loses consciousness from hydraulic shock to the body fluids and the lack of blood flow and oxygen to the brain.10 The damage to the cardiovascular system results in death by blood loss in a matter of minutes.

 

However, in countries such as China, execution is carried out through a single shot to the neck instead of a firing squad aiming for the heart, as the brain stem is technically the fastest way to kill the body: the heart and respiration stop functioning almost immediately. North Korea uses multi-barrel anti-aircraft cannons, which also allow for faster death. In the case of a botched execution, wherein the prisoner moves or the shooters miss, the prisoner bleeds to death and endures a lengthier time of suffering. In the case of two Nigerian drug traffickers in Indonesia in 2008, the executioners aimed for the heart from a meter away and narrowly missed the heart, causing the traffickers to suffer and bleed to death for ten minutes.11

 

Scientifically, the method of execution by the electric chair also does a variety of things to lead to the body’s fatality. The prisoner is hooked up to electrodes and 2000-2500 volts of electricity are sent through a cable, first reaching a saltwater-soaked sponge and copper cap resting on the head to facilitate the electrical current to the skull. The skin can reach a temperature of up to 200 degrees, and such a sudden jump in body temperature can cause tissue to swell and skin to melt rapidly. The circuit passes through the muscles, veins, the brain, and legs in a first attempt to bring the victim to unconsciousness. Fifteen seconds pass, and a second current is applied to ensure death of the vital organs.12 Little medical research has identified how specifically electrocution kills the body, but many attribute death to cardiac arrest, followed by brain paralysis. Most cases require multiple jolts for 15-30 seconds each to conduct full execution, and the body has to be strapped in securely to prohibit contortion and convulsion. The patient’s eyes often have to be taped shut, as the electric current causes tissue swelling and the eyeballs to pop out of their sockets.13 Electrocution is much more commonly botched than firing squads, as it relies on more factors to shut the body down. In some cases, the first jolt fails to kill the victim, but the body needs several minutes to cool down before the physician can check if they are still breathing, in which case more jolts must be applied. Sometimes, the executioners do not hook up the cables correctly, so the current cannot be distributed appropriately. In others, the voltage is too high or too low, causing the skin to cook, smoke, or catch fire while organs such as the heart are still functioning.14 Repeated electrocution attempts are conducted until the victim is no longer breathing and without a heartbeat, which can last for long bouts of time as the patient suffers from burning flesh and internal organ damage.

 

The method of hanging can lead to death through a number of scientific factors. Prior to execution, the length of the rope drop is measured depending on the prisoner’s body weight to see ensure that it will, by the laws of physics, actually kill him or her. After the rope is tied, the prisoner is dropped and would experience a fracture-dislocation in the neck due to the momentum, which ideally would kill the inmate on impact. The broken neck would lead to unconsciousness, leading to brain death.15 However, multiple factors can cause the execution to go wrong in regards to the rope, and varying factors such as the person’s weight, height, and neck strength, could prevent instantaneous death. In cases such as these, the prisoner would most likely die from asphyxiation and suffocation as the oxygen cannot get to the brain and the veins and arteries are blocked.16 If the rope is too short, strangulation could turn into a long, slow process of suffering, sometimes as long as 10-45 minutes. During this time, the capillaries burst from the pressure build-up of blood in the carotids, blood pressure plummets, and the trachea is slowly being crushed by the noose, leading to intense amounts of pain and suffering. This leads to gruesome effects for viewers, including defecation, popping eyes, and an engorged face.17 In other cases, the inmate could be decapitated if the rope is too long and the fall too hard. While these three methods of execution may seem medically similar in that they all cause vital organs to cease, their risks to the body and the timing of their deaths actually vary greatly.

 

Out of the three methods of execution mentioned, the firing squad is the least nationally used, even though it is technically considered unconstitutional.23 But from an ethical standpoint, shooting as a method of execution seems to be the most morally and ethically sound option. A total of five people volunteer to perform the task and their identities are kept anonymous; these volunteers often include the police officers who were present when the prisoner committed the crime. In addition to their identities being unknown, the person who killed the prisoner remains unknown, as well, in such that one volunteer’s gun contains a blank round as to keep the person who killed the criminal a mystery. After the prisoner is executed, the organs that remain intact can be donated, unlike those from electrocution. Although the option of the firing squad seems to be the most painless and efficient form of execution, lawmakers in Utah decided that the firing squad would no longer be an option as of 2004 because the media coverage these executions received took the attention away from the victims.18

 

Electrocution as a form of execution, while one of the most frequently used methods, it is one of the most unethical, in that a prisoner must continue to be shocked with fifteen second intervals in between to assure death. Austin Sarat’s book, Gruesome Spectacles, contains statistics regarding methods of execution and the amount of which were botched.19

 

Method Total Executions Botched Executions Botched Execution Rate
Hanging 2,721 85 3.12%
Electrocution 4,374 84 1.92%
Lethal Gas 593 32 5.4%
Lethal Injection 1,054 75 7.12%
Firing Squad 34 0 0%
All Methods 8,776 276 3.15%

https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/some-examples-post-furman-botched-executions

 

One person recalled watching their client, a man named Daryl Holton who had been convicted of killing his three children and a stepchild, be put to death by electric chair. He argued that while death is probably instantaneous in this method of execution, “the psychology torment that accompanies [it] is beyond description.”20 But originally, electrocution was meant to replace hanging as a more ethical method of killing.21 While the botch rate of electrocution is low, the moral ethics of this method of execution are questionable. A person watching a prisoner be killed in this manner will potentially watch said prisoner defecate, convulse, and burn from the inside out. In addition, because of the amount of electricity pulsing through the prisoner’s body, there is almost no chance of organ donations, as the organs will no longer be viable.22 The autopsies after these executions are delayed in order to allow time for the organs to cool down. The organs and body are burned and blackened to the point of the body being too hot to touch.21

 

The method of hanging as a death penalty is only legal in three states, but it is widely criticized because of the amount of botched executions. As stated before, making sure that a person’s weight is properly recorded and that the length of the rope is appropriate to body size is extremely important in making sure that the inmate being put to death does not suffer tremendously. Richard Dieter stated that “if hanging were the usual method, we probably would have done away with execution.”24 People believe that hanging is the quickest and easiest way to kill somebody, but it is also very hard for people to watch. Death by hanging has been the most widely practiced method of execution since executions became practiced worldwide, but to watch someone be hanged today is unheard of in the United States. Although hangings remain somewhat public in other parts of the world, the United States does not publicly show these deaths. Many body parts become engorged and the body will fight for life for as long as it can, but in relation to organ donation, hangings can provide viable organs, excluding the lungs.

 

Ghania Chaudhry

Hannah Fesler

Grace Towery

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

1.Alam, Muhammad Qadeer, “Capital Punishment in South Asia (India, Pakistan andBangladesh): A Legal Analysis,” PhD thesis. Middlesex University, 2017, http://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/21990/1/ MQAlam%20thesis.pdf.

2.Mehta, Divya, “Capital Punishment in India: Life, Death, and Rebirth?” Brown Political Review, December 30, 2016, Accessed April 08, 2019, http://www.brownpoliticalreview.org/ 2016/11/capital-punishment-india/

3.Swathi, M, and K. Roja, “A Critical Study on Capital Punishment in India,” International Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics 120, no. 5 (2018): 911-922, Accessed April   08, 2019, https://acadpubl.eu/hub/2018-120-5/1/98.pdf.

4.Fisher, Max, “Capital Punishment in China,” The Atlantic, September 22, 2011, Accessed April 08, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/09/capital-punishment-in-china/245520/.

5.”Death Penalty Database,” The Death Penalty in China, Cornell Law School, April 10, 2014, Accessed April 08, 2019, https://www.deathpenaltyworldwide.org/country-search-post.cfm?country=China.

6.”Death Penalty Database,” The Death Penalty in United States of America, Cornell Law School, April 10, 2014, Accessed April 08, 2019, http://www.deathpenaltyworldwide.org/country-search-post.cfm?country=united+states+of+america.

7.Agorakis, Stavros, “Tennessee Death Row Inmate David Earl Miller Faces the Electric Chair Today,” Vox, December 06, 2018, Accessed April 08, 2019, https://www.vox.com/2018/12/3/18118175/tennessee-death-penalty-lethal-injection-electrocution.

8.Denno, Deborah W, “Electrocution,” Encyclopædia Britannica, February 09, 2012, Accessed April 08, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/electrocution.

9.Williams, Joseph P, “The Firing Squad is Making a Comeback,” The Civic Report, March 3, 2017, Accessed April 7, 2019, https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2017-03-03/the-firing-squad-is-making-a-comeback-in-death-penalty-cases.

10.Barnes, Dustin, “Methods of execution by state: Electric chair, firing squad, hanging,” Tenessean, October 9, 2018, Accessed April 7. 2019, https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/crime/ 2018/10/09/methods-execution-state-electric-chair-firing-squad-hanging-gas-chamber/1576763002/.

11.Forbes, Mark, “Priest relives firing squad deaths for court,” The Sydney Morning Herald, September 19, 2008, Accessed April 8, 2019, https://www.smh.com.au/world/priest-relives-firing-squad-deaths-for-court-20080919-gdsvjk.html.

12.Silva, Vania, “How does Electrocution Kill You?” The Naked Scientists, March 15, 2017, Accessed April 8, 2019, https://www.thenakedscientists.com/articles/science-features/how-does-electrocution-kill-you.

13.Jaun, Dr. Stephen, “What happens when you are executed by electrocution?” The Register, October 26, 2006, Accessed April 7, 2019, https://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/10/20/the_odd_ body_electrocution/.

14.“Botched Executions,” Death Penalty Information Center, 2019, Accessed April 7, 2019, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/some-examples-post-furman-botched-executions.

15.Richard, Jeff, “What Happens to your Body When You are Hanged to Death,” Ranker, 2018, Accessed April 7, 2019. https://www.ranker.com/list/hanging-to-death-what-happens-to-your-body/jeffrichard.

16.“Hanging,” The Death Penalty. 2016, Accessed April 8, 2019, https://deathpenaltycurriculum.org/ student/c/about/methods/hanging.htm.

17.Richards, “What Happens to your Body When You are Hanged to Death.”

18.McCombs, Brady. “Utah’s Firing Squad: How Does it Work?” APNews, March 24, 2015, Accessed April 7, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/58559881d0f743009cfeb52196702382.

19.“Botched Executions,” Death Penalty Information Center, March 1, 2018, Accessed April 8, 2019, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/some-examples-post-furman-botched-executions.

20.“Lawyer for the condemned: I witnessed what should be the last electric chair execution,” Raybin & Weissman, P.C., June 23, 2014, Accessed April 8, 2019, https://www.nashvilletnlaw.com/the-last-electric-chair-execution/.

21.“Descriptions of Execution Methods,” Death Penalty Information Center, Accessed April 8, 2019, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/descriptions-execution-methods?scid=8&did=479.

22.Aldershof, Kent, “Do death penalty organs get donated for transplant?” Quora, March 9, 2017, Accessed April 8, 2019, https://www.quora.com/Do-death-penalty-organs-get-donated-for-transplant.

23.Basir, Safeena, “Ethics of Death Penalty,” The One Pager, October 24, 2013, Accessed April 8, 2019, https://sites.psu.edu/svb5533/2013/10/29/ethics-of-death-penalty/.

24.Reynolds, Dean, “Execution by Hanging Still Happens in the U.S.–But Is It Humane?”KTRE, July 26, 2007, Accessed April 8, 2019, http://www.ktre.com/story/5962024/execution-by-hanging-still-happens-in-the-us-but-is-it-humane/.

12 Comments

  1. The death penalty is one of the most controversial issues stirring throughout the United States now. It is so controversial that my opinion on the topic has constantly changed, and it seems like I keep learning more things about it that I didn’t before. An example of this is actually how many options/methods there were for the death penalty. I personally knew of lethal injection and electrocution, but I had no idea that hanging and shooting were options as well. I was very intrigued to read that China “put more prisoners to death than the rest of the world combined”, the strong majority of these being through lethal injection or shooting. The most surprising thing that I learned from this post was that you can get the death penalty in China for drug-related crimes or theft.

  2. This research post detailed extensively the three different methods of execution, and went into depth about the successes and failures of using each of the methods. In regards to the method of lethal injection, I think there is some congruence between using this method and my topic of physician-assisted suicide. I was shocked to learn that inmates prefer an alternative method (other than lethal injection) due to the high rate of botched executions. Perhaps if physicians were to aid more in this process, the number of mishandled executions would drop, but then controversy arises regarding physicians aiding in death. This post raises a few questions regarding the efficiency of these three types of executions. Obviously all of them can result in issues, and prolong an uncomfortable death, however, what can we do to try and eliminate these sufferings? Are physicians the answer?

  3. I thought this article was VERY interesting for I had no idea these methods of execution were still used today. The most compelling part of this research post that caught my attention was the ethical standpoints of these methods of execution. It is crazy that so many ethical concerns are looked over because these methods have been implemented for so many years. It was also very interesting to compare the number of botched execution rates over different types of methods. I found it shocking that lethal injection had the highest botched rate at 7.12%. I thought that this would have a low number of botched executions because the medical field has become so advanced over the years. One would think that these advancements in medicine could find a drug that would quickly kill someone with a low botched execution rate.

  4. I loved the overall comparisons between different death penalties in different countries. However, I disagree with you when you said: “Also, lethal injection is cheaper than a firing squad.” Lethal injection is actually much more expensive than a firing squad in China because the cost of labor is much cheaper in China than costs in the US. Also in China, the family of the prisoner has to pay for the bullet, which only costs ¥5(less than $1). The firing squad has not been discontinued in China even though as you said China prefers lethal injection because it is more humane. Overall, it gives interesting information about electrocution, hanging and firing squad.

  5. I thought that this research topic was very interesting as I am a person who does not believe in the death penalty, so reading on all of the ethical, cultural, and scientific aspects of it greatly interested me. I also did not realize that many of these execution styles were still used to this day as I thought electrocution and death by hanging would be in the past. The way the group dissected how each country goes about its legal system and the death penalties they implement was a very interesting aspect of this research topic as well. My initial thoughts on the way that other countries conduct these executions were appalling; however, once reading the scientific reasoning behind them, I realized that all of these execution styles, including those of the United States, were ethically immoral. Finally, the botch rates were very interesting as I did not think that these would be easy, or even likely, to make a mistake on.

  6. I was surprised at the fact that lethal injection had the most “botched executions” for the number of total executions. Seventy-five lethal injections were unsuccessful out of the 1,054 lethal injections conducted. I also did not know that hanging was still used in the states as a form of the death penalty—the reason I did know is probably because it is not “publicly shown” in the US as it is in other countries.

    After reading the post on cremation, I’m curious to know how the body is rid of after a death penalty has been done. Is the individual cremated? Buried? Disposed of in any other manner?
    Who pays for the individual’s post-mortem rites?

    I’m also curious to know if there is research going on of any other methods other than hanging, electrocution, lethal injection, shooting etc. for the death penalty that have an even better success rate?

  7. This post was an interesting look at the differences in death penalty methods across countries. I had never really considered the ethical differences between these methods, especially that some were considered more humane than others. Since this topic is such a heavily debated one, it is important to learn as much as you can about the actualities of carrying out the death penalty so that you can be as informed as possible when taking a stance on such a contentious issue. Additionally, especially with hanging, it was fascinating to read about how opinions towards it have changed throughout the years: the quote “if hanging were the usual method, we probably would have done away with execution” is interesting to compare to my knowledge of how people used to go watch hangings for entertainment.

  8. My post was also centered around the death penalty, so I think its very interesting that this post was able to focus specifically on the different methods of the death penalty. While at first glance it appeared to be scientific heavy, I liked how you incorporated cultural and ethical aspects. I wasn’t surprised to see that China is the world’s most frequent executioner, but I think it is very strange that there is no official data or statistics about execution in India despite the fact that it is used. I wonder if there is any pushback from people within the country who want this data? I also wonder if the government has collected this data, but simply doesn’t want to share it? I also like that this post touched on the ethical angle of different methods. I think your point about how on the one hand the electric chair is the fastest method of death, but on the other hand the mental torture that goes along with it makes me question its use.

  9. The article is very interesting in comparing three countries with the highest populations in the world and how they still use the death penalty. China, with the largest population globally, executes around 5,000 prisoners a year, a much higher number than I was expecting, furthermore I was surprised that the two methods employed in the death penalty were lethal injection but also a gunshot to the head. It’s interesting that shooting was only outlawed in 1996. Furthermore, I knew that the US was one of the few countries left in the world with the death penalty but reading that it’s the only developed nation that still uses it is somewhat mystifying. It would be interesting to compare when other developed nations outlawed the death penalty, as well as the overall cultural opinion towards it. Finally, with the different methods of execution in the US how does race factor into what method is chosen? I know that racial bias is very significant in the justice system in this country but it would be interesting to see how that further plays out in execution methods. Do people of color receive the riskier method?

  10. Stephen Parson

    April 24, 2019 at 9:42 pm

    It’s interesting to think that while death is universal, the multitude of ways of producing it (execution) can vary in different cultures. For example, where it was explained that both China and the US use the firing squad method, but the targets are different. I also find it interesting that there are so many officially accepted methods of execution. I wonder if this can be applied to a lack of attention or care about the suffering of the person being executed? Obviously, some methods produce more suffering than others.

  11. My research was also about the death penalty, but only in the United States, so it is interesting to read about how it is used in other areas of the world. I have never heard of the methods you mentioned used in China and North Korea. It’s intriguing that such few countries still use the death penalty today. It would be interesting to learn about coutries who don’t use the death penalty, and their reasons for abolishing it. Also why is electrocution one of the most common forms of execution if it’s very unethical? Are steps being made to make it more ethical? And what sort of research is being done to make more successful and ethical death administration methods?

  12. I chose to read your posting because I wanted to learn more about the topic of the death penalty. I found it interesting that there was no reported data of the executions in India after 1995. Even in 1995, the executions only average three per year which is significantly less than the number that the US performs every year, even back then. I found it surprising that China is actually the most frequent executioner in the world. I guess, to a degree, this makes sense. China is the most populated country in the world and they also execute the most people but India goes against this logic as it appears to keep its annual executions low in regards to numbers. I find it interesting too how certain countries choose to carry out their executions. China seems to be focused on efficiency as they shoot people in the neck. They also seem to consider that the victim will not suffer for long. In the US though, electrocution and lethal injection are popular choices which are likely to be botched. If botched, both of these methods can be quite painful. I found it is quite surprising that hangings are popular execution practice in other parts of the world because this is not the case in the US. I liked how this posting compared execution or death penalty practices in different parts of the world. My group looked at natural disasters which occurred in the US as well as other parts of the world which I think is advantageous when comparing how disasters are dealt with. The group did a great job in collaborating and providing thorough explanations of each type of practice as well as relevant global context. Good job!

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