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
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|
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.
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/.