Making a Killing: Which is the Most Humane Method of Execution?

If, like me, you’re an avid reader of depressing news stories, then you may have come across several articles this week reporting on the recent decision by the government of Papua New Guinea to legalise the death penalty.

Now I don’t want to get into a discussion on the morality of the decision itself (I have neither the word count nor the time), but it did get me thinking about the science of executions. Although it may sound obvious, just exactly how do the major forms of execution work, and which, if any, should be considered the most humane?…

Hanging

One of the oldest forms of execution, the principle behind hanging has remained unchanged for centuries. The favoured modern variation is termed the ‘long drop’ and was the method used to kill former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2006.

Those planning the execution calculate the so-called ‘drop distance’ required to break the neck based on the height, weight and build of the condemned. Typically their calculations aim to cause the body to move quickly enough after the trap door opens to produce between 1,000 and 1,250 foot-pounds of torque on the neck at the point the noose jerks tight.

HangingThis requires a distance of around 5 to 9 feet with the noose knot placed under the jaw at the left side of the subject’s neck. The resulting jolt severs the spinal cord leading to a rapid drop in blood pressure and a resultant loss of consciousness. Brain death then takes several minutes to occur and death is not complete until 15-20 minutes after the trap door is released, although the individual at the end of the rope is unlikely to experience any of it.

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.

Firing Squad

Traditionally associated with the execution of covert spies and enemy prisoners during the war, death by firing squad has been heavily featured in numerous period films and television shows.

However, the reality is far removed from the old cinematic cliché of a victim boldly striding to the front of a line of rifleman and rattling off a few final words. Instead, the convict is strapped to a chair with a target pinned over his heart; a black hood is optional. Five expert marksmen then take aim from a distance of no less than 25 feet and all fire at exactly the same time.

Utah Firing SquadAn interesting psychological caveat is that one rifle is loaded with a blank, so that none of the executioners can know who fired the fatal shot in a bid to mitigate any potential feelings of guilt.

Death by firing squad has been reported to be quicker than lethal injection. 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.

Lethal Injection

One of the most popular methods of execution, the general approach is to introduce a lethal chemical cocktail into the bloodstream of the condemned criminal. A barbiturate is present to bring on sedation and suppress respiration, a neuromuscular paralytic helps to halt breathing and reduce body convulsions, and a potassium electrolyte serves to stop the heart.

Lethal InjectionThe system is set-up under the principle of ‘toxic-redundancy’, so that each drug in isolation is sufficient to bring on death. Bizarrely, the dosage remains constant irrespective of the criminal’s weight, height or build. As a result, scientists have recorded instances in which breathing and cardiovascular activity have been sustained following the injections.

Criminals have also been caused unnecessary suffering due to unskilled executioners mishandling jabs, missing veins and using blocked IVs. It’s a problem that is likely to persist, given that most medical codes prevent trained personnel from becoming involved in a process designed to do harm.

The worrying frequency with which issues have been recorded has led several courts and state governments in the US to place a moratorium on the practice whilst further evidence is collected.

The Electric Chair

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the electric chair was actually conceived as a humane alternative to hanging. 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.

electric-chairThe 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 Gas Chamber

One of the greatest outcries over the new laws in Papua New Guinea has stemmed from the approval of suffocation, or, to give it its full title, medically induced oxygen deprivation, as a state-regulated means of execution.

The most common means of facilitating this process is through the use of a gas chamber. The inmate is sealed inside the device, either strapped to a chair or freestanding, and a heart monitor is attached.

Gas-ChamberPotassium cyanide pellets are then dropped into a reservoir of sulfuric acid, resulting in the chemical liberation of deadly hydrogen cyanide gas.

The cyanide ions act as an irreversible enzyme inhibitor, binding to the iron atoms of cytochrome c oxidase (aa3) in the mitochondrial membrane. This causes the enzyme to denature and means the final transport of electrons from aa3 to oxygen cannot be completed, resulting in the failure of aerobic respiration.

Physical effects are coma, seizures and cardiac arrest. Death follows in a matter of minutes, and this time lag has previously proved a problem. Indeed, during the execution of rapist Jimmy Lee Gray in 1983, the subject gasped and flailed so much that the warden had to expel the witnesses from the observation room.

Verdict: Unclear

Whilst lethal injection is often thought of as the most humane method of execution, recent evidence is calling this assumption into question. A firing squad is certainly fast, but there is always the risk, however small, that a marksman will miss. Hanging has a similar potential for miscalculation, whilst suffocation and the electric chair can clearly cause undue suffering.

So it looks like I’m stumped. What do you think? Is the question answerable using scientific evidence, or is the whole concept of state-sponsored execution something that can only ever be judged morally and ethically?

If you want to find out more on this topic then why not take a look at Michael Portillo’s brilliant BBC documentary ‘The Science of Killing’.

Paul Blakeley

Paul has an MSc in Reproductive Biology, and is currently dabbling in a bit of writing and website design…If someone would like to give him a job, that would be lovely.

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36 Comments

  1. Tracy

    I don’t really understand why the guillotine fell out of favor. It seems fast and efficient, two points not found together in the other methods.

  2. john j charette

    the most painless and humane form of execution would be by “guillotine”…head severed from spinal cord instantly! may be gruesome to watch (the point of execution is to deter another execution, should be unbearably terrifying) the French were right on this, as are other cultures. technology be damned!

  3. Mike

    I’m in favor of suffocation via a mix of Chloroform and N2O (laughing gas). The N2O causes mild sedation and significant euphoria while disabling pain receptors by inhibiting vitamin B12 action. The chloroform by itself is potent enough that it used to be used as a surgical anesthetic. Monitor heart and brain activity and, once total unconsciousness is achieved, steadily reduce O2 levels until brain/cardiac/respiratory activity ceases. If there is a desire to grant the convicted the best death possible, offer amenities such as tranquil mood lighting, incense or scented candles, playing a custom soundtrack, during the process, etc.

  4. Dan

    Deciding on a humane capital punishment is always muddled by the intense battle between anti-death penalty fanatics, those who want painful revenge against the criminal, those who really think capital punishment serves a good purpose, all mixed with our bungling legal bureaucracy. The point, a humane execution method that avoids controversy, is missed. At present I favor nitrogen asphyxiation or severing the spine at the neck with a sharp blade or microwave beam. Of course given the strident politics of the thing, I’m sure plenty of people with work hard to make that fail too.

  5. Brett

    Hanging is probably the most humane, but not the quickest form of execution. But, in this day-and-age, measurements of a death-row inmate would be pretty precise. In most (if not all) cases the brain stem is ripped violently from the atlas, resulting in immediate unconsciousness and/or death. And, looking at the cost of certain forms of “humane” execution currently used in the modern world, a rope, is insurmountably cheaper than a cocktail of toxins. As far as beheading/guillotine, I think that would be a living hell… In many cases the brain may be oxygenated enough, or the slice so quick and clean, that the head is still conscious. The Long Drop Method has my favor.

  6. Joshua

    How about anesthesia + dynamite? Use a brain monitor. If the anesthesia fails, don’t proceed.

  7. Delmair

    Aside from the cleanup factor, I was also wondering about explosives. They’re (pretty) reliable, and the fast detonation types (C4, perhaps) will likely kill the subject before he or she realizes it’s gone off. Maybe combine it with cremation, to address the cleanup problem. Though I would hope no one would want to witness it.
    A grim topic indeed.

  8. Robert N

    I think that all of these ideas have the potential to cause suffering. We don’t know enough about criminality to substantiate the death of another human being. Therefore, it is my opinion that capital punishment should be stayed on current prospective parties and not allowed to occur until we know more about it. While I do not support animal testing, it happens all the time to determine the LD50 values to certain species. It is a wonder why the top of the food chain; us, as humans, respectively, do not have sufficient information to conclude what is painful and what is not painful.

    Respectively,

    Robert N

  9. Robert Navarro

    I think that all of these ideas have the potential to cause suffering. We don’t know enough about criminality to substantiate the death of another human being. Therefore, it is my opinion that capital punishment should be stayed on current prospective parties and not allowed to occur until we know more about it. While I do not support animal testing, it happens all the time to determine the LD50 values to certain species. It is a wonder why the top of the food chain; us, as humans, respectively, do not have sufficient information to conclude what is painful and what is not painful.

    Respectively,

    Robert N

  10. Robert Navarro

    I believe that all of the ideals have the potential to cause suffering. We don’t know enough about criminality to substantiate the death of another human being. Therefore, it is my opinion that capital punishment should be stayed on current prospective parties and not allowed to occur until we know more about it. While I do not support animal testing, it happens all the time to determine the LD50 values to certain species. It is a wonder why the top of the food chain; us, as humans, respectively, do not have sufficient information to conclude what is painful and what is not painful.

    Respectfully,

    Robert Navarro

  11. Robert Navarro (NOT THE FRENCH POLITICIAN)

    I think that all of these ideas have the potential to cause suffering. We don’t know enough about criminality to substantiate the death of another human being. Therefore, it is my opinion that capital punishment should be stayed on current prospective parties and not allowed to occur until we know more about it. While I do not support animal testing, it happens all the time to determine the LD50 values to certain species. It is a wonder why the top of the food chain; us, as humans, respectively, do not have sufficient information to conclude what is painful and what is not painful.

    Respectfully,

    Robert Navarro (NOT THE FRENCH POLITICIAN)

  12. Robert Navarro (NOT THE FRENCH POLITICIAN)

    I think that all of these ideas have the potential to cause suffering. We don’t know enough about criminality to substantiate the death of another human being. Therefore, it is my opinion that capital punishment should be stayed on current prospective parties and not allowed to occur until we know more about it. While I do not support animal testing, it happens all the time to determine the LD50 values to certain species. It is a wonder why the top of the food chain; us, as humans, respectively, do not have sufficient information to conclude what is painful and what is not painful.

    Respectively,

    Robert Navarro (NOT THE FRENCH POLITICIAN)

  13. Robert Navarro (NOT THE FRENCH POLITICIAN)

    I think that all of these ideas have the potential to cause suffering. We don’t know enough about criminality to substantiate the death of another human being. Therefore, it is my opinion that capital punishment should be stayed on current prospective parties and not allowed to occur until we know more about it. While I do not support animal testing, it happens all the time to determine the LD50 values to certain species. It is a wonder why the top of the food chain; us, as humans, respectively, do not have sufficient information to conclude what is painful and what is not painful.
    Respectfully,

    Robert Navarro (NOT THE FRENCH POLITICIAN)

  14. Robert Navarro

    My apologies are expressed in advance for the duplicate postings. It appears that the wordpress program does not like the mobile carrier that I am with.

    Robert N (Not the french politician)

  15. Sharon

    I have just finished reading your articles on different forms of execution and what is the most humane way yo be executed, to me it should what is the most I humane way to kill a prisoner. The reason that I’m saying this is because they probably killed thr victim/victims the most Inhumane possible because he never gave their families a thought.

  16. -osgo-

    North Korea has had excellent results via 37mm-57mm anti-aircraft cannon. It literally renders the convicted into minuscule, 2cm-3cm bits, nor have any of the subjects complained of excessive pain or struggle.

    Indeed, I’m thinking it might make an excellent 1st economic overture to the Little General’s regime, as there’s only a small market for their liquor that has snakes inside the bottle.

    Just my two shekels….

  17. Anonymous

    This is an interesting subject we discussed in my high school current events class. Personally, I am against the death penalty, but if I had to choose, a firing squad sounds the most humane because it is quick and (relatively) painless, especially if the person is shot in the head. I was surprised they shot them in the heart, to me the brain sounds more humane, but I could be mistaken. Decapitation, if done correctly, also sounds pretty humane to me. Again, I don’t agree with the death penalty but these are the ones I would say are most humane.

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  19. Ian

    A lot of your correspondents mention beheading. While it is probably the one that carries the least risk of prolonged suffering by the condemned person, those who suggest it lose sight of the fact that the quest for a “humane” form of execution has very little to do with the suffering of the condemned person, and much more to do with the self-righteousness of those imposing and carrying out the sentence, who are able to say that, notwithstanding that they are killing another human being, they are doing so in a “civilised” manner. Any method that involves a lot of bloodshed or mutilation would therefore never be employed in a so-called “civilised democracy”, not because it would cause the condemned person greater suffering, but because it offends the sensibilities of the society – the same society that is happy to legalise judicial killing in the first place.

  20. Anonymous

    I’m no expert, but we discussed execution and its various methods in my current events class back in high school and based on what I learned then and through Internet research, I’d say the “best” way to be executed would be through beheading or firing squad. Both seem to me relatively quick and least painful.

  21. Jack

    I think that the most efficient way would be to just shoot the person in the back of the neck from point blank range, simple, cheap, and effective

  22. Methods Of Capital Punishment | Chamblee54

    […] 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 […]

  23. Bryce Gipple

    I’m honestly not sure which the best method would be. I’m telling you straight that if I was in charge of state legislature, gas chamber would NOT be an option, unless we use pure nitrogen instead of hydrogen cyanide. As with lethal injection, any number of things can go wrong- and they already have multiple times. Electric chair is way too easy to botch. That leaves us with hanging or firing squad. Firing squads are ace marksmen (meaning among the highest accuracy), so the likelihood of missing the vital organs is relatively low. Hanging, although easy to botch, is cheap, instantaneous (if you do it right), and probably A LOT more crime deterring to watch than lethal injection. For instance, when Albert Pierrepoint (Britain’s most notorious executioner) performed hangings, he calculated a drop down to the inch that varies by body weight, height, and physical condition. Then, at the time of execution, it took an average of 15 seconds from departure of cell to dead. If we calculate by the centimeter, there may be a higher chance of a humane death, and if we make it public, crime will probably go down because it seems cruel to watch but it’s actually instantaneous if you do it right.

  24. George

    How about this: Use the same method of execution that the suspect/inmate used to kill (or torture)their victim! Their manner of execution should be as humane as they showed their innocent victims. If the victim has family, let THEM decide the manner of execution, not the inmate.

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