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Hanging, Lethal Injection or Gas Chamber: Is Dignity Possible in Death Penalty?

Which method of execution can be called most humane?

8 min read
Hanging, Lethal Injection or Gas Chamber: Is Dignity Possible in Death Penalty?
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(Trigger warning: Detailed descriptions of capital punishment and botched executions.)

(It must be unambiguously stated at the outset that The Quint is principally opposed to any and all forms of capital punishment, owing to its cruel, inhuman and irreversible nature. We maintain that right to life should be upheld, under all circumstances. The intent of this story is merely to discuss the different methods with which executions have been carried out, in light of the recent discussion on this subject in the Supreme Court of India.)

Clayton Lockett, an African-American man, was born in 1975 allegedly to a drug-using mother, who left him to be raised by an abusive father when he was all but three. At 25 years of age, Lockett was convicted on charges of murder, rape and kidnapping. 14 years later, he breathed his last in America’s Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

But death did not come easy for Clayton Lockett.

'The Drugs Aren't Working'

File photo of Clayton Lockett.

(Image courtesy: Twitter/Liza Sabater, altered by The Quint)

Lockett's execution, which has been referred to as a "procedural disaster" by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, was the state's first instance of using the sedative midazolam as part of their three-drug protocol.


According to a CNN report, a review of the execution found that the sedative, owing to the execution team's failure to establish intravenous access, did not enter Lockett's blood stream. They, however, went ahead and declared him unconscious.

Once the other two fluids were administered to him, witnesses say they watched Lockett writhe, curse and moan: “the drugs aren’t working." The final injection was finally stopped. Lockett was pronounced dead 43 minutes after he was given midazolam.

This led to a revisal of the state's safety protocol. However, this isn't the only botched execution by lethal injection, and the problem isn't limited to midazolam use. There have been several others, despite different types of drugs and across differing protocols.

(File photo of a lethal injection table)

(Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)


In 1990, Illinois, a Charles Walker suffered excruciating pain during his execution due to equipment failure and human error. In 2006, Florida, Angel Diaz remained conscious for much longer than he was expected to, grimacing in pain, coughing, becoming still and then “jolting” back to life, as his body suffered chemical burns.

He even reportedly asked at one point: “What’s going on?”

The execution should have spanned fifteen minutes, but according to media reports, it lasted for 34.

When America started to replace existing methods – electric chair, hanging, gassing and shooting – in the 1980s, they turned to lethal injection as the most "humane" approach. But how humane is something really, if it carries with it the possibility of disasters like the ones described above?

Austin Sarat, in his book Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty associates a botched execution rate of 7.12% with lethal injections. Meanwhile, Sarat pins electrocution botch-ups at 1.92%.

Electrocution: Smoke, Spark & A 'Sense of Extreme Horror'

When the Supreme Court of Georgia banned electrocution as a means of execution, they cited expert testimony that suggested alternating current “could repetitively activate the brain, causing the perception of excruciating pain and a sense of extreme horror.”

The Supreme Court of Nebraska, on its part, cited expert testimony that said that the skin of a prisoner, on an electric chair, could spike to “a temperature of 200 degrees.”

As per a Buzzfeed report, witnesses talked of harrowing visuals of smoke emanating from a prisoner's leg, and the smell of burning flesh wafting through the viewing room.

(Illustration of electrocution)

(Image courtesy: Canva, altered by The Quint)

In 1983, Alabama, after a John Evans was administered the first jolt of electricity, sparks and flames reportedly erupted from the electrode attached to his leg. Then the electrode, bursting from the strap, began to burn.

“Smoke and sparks also came out from under the hood in the vicinity of Evans’s left temple,” recounts an essay on his execution.

When a pair of physicians burst into the chamber, they found a heartbeat. So the electrode was reattached, and another jolt administered. But despite that, and all the additional smoking and singeing of flesh, doctors found a heartbeat again. Thus, a third jolt was applied, despite the pleas of Evans' lawyer.

Besides, the Buzzfeed report quotes both Georgia and Nebraska rulings as having discussed the possibility of the prisoner suffering burns in his head from “the sloughing or ‘slippage’ of a large portion of the scalp,” and “sagging skin on the sides of the prisoner's head from the temple areas and cheeks to above and behind the ears.”

So yes, there may have been statistically fewer botch-ups, as per Sarat's research, but the brutality of the act does not appear diminished, by any stretch of imagination.


Gassing & Shooting: How Inmates 'Marched to Their Own Funeral'

“Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while the reporters counted his moans,” defence attorney David Bruck once lamented, as he recounted an execution by asphyxiation in 1983, Mississippi.

In this case, as per media reports, state officials had cleared the room sooner than they were supposed to. The executioner had reportedly been drunk.

But even the death of Donald Eugene Harding, another person to have been executed by asphyxiation (in 1992, Arizona) is a ghastly reminder of just how cruel this method is. Cameron Harper, a television journalist recounted the incident as a “violent death” and an “ugly event.”

“We put animals to death more humanely,” he said.

Meanwhile, Carla McClain, a newspaper reporter said: “Harding’s death was extremely violent. He was in great pain. I heard him gasp and moan. I saw his body turn from red to purple.”

Shooting, on the other hand, has historically been associated with cold-blooded violence, war and a brutal means of instilling terror.

"We know that (the American) Civil War firing squads were not always immediately effective," Mark M Smith, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, additionally, wrote in a piece for The Conversation.

Smith then went on to quote a 1864 report of a firing squad, as per which one soldier from the 49th Regiment Colored Infantry “had to be dispatched by pistol, immediate death not resulting from the wounds by the muskets.” He also quoted a Harper's Weekly article from 1863, which said:

"They (inmates slated to face a firing squad) all suffered terribly mentally, and as they marched to their own funeral they staggered with mortal agony like a drunken man.”

Death by Hanging: 'Slow and Agonising' or Worse?

During much of the 19th century, hanging was the most common method of execution in the US. But as America scrounged for a "less barbarous manner", they started to move far and further away from hanging. In 1885, New York Governor David B Hill told the state legislature: “Hanging has come down to us from the dark ages."

"...hangings can be grisly. If the rope is too short, the noose will slowly strangle the condemned. If the rope is too long, the force of the fall can decapitate the person."

A PIL filed in the Supreme Court of India seeks to abolish the present practice of death by hanging, which involves “prolonged pain and suffering”. The plea cites the dissenting judgement of Justice PN Bhagwati in Bachan Singh v State Of Punjab, as having observed:

"If the drop is too short, there will be a slow and agonising death by strangulation. On the other hand, if the drop is too long, the head will be torn off."

According to LiveLaw, the petitioner gave examples of cases in which death row convicts had to be left hanging for two days as they slowly died by strangulation.

Additionally, the petitioner pointed out out that hanging was being slowly abandoned as a method in other countries. He reportedly sought for it to be replaced with options like lethal injection, shooting, electrocution or gas chamber.

The petition added:

"It (death by hanging) is neither quick, nor humane - thirty minutes the body keeps hanging till the doctor checks if the person is dead or not."

So What Did the Supreme Court of India Say?

Considering the PIL, the apex court reportedly asked Attorney General R Venkataramani to come back to them with better data "on the impact of death by hanging, pain caused and the period taken for such death to take place, availability of resources to effectuate such hanging by death..."

"And is today's science suggesting that this is best method today or is there another method which is more suitable to uphold human dignity?" the bench asked.

The bench also mulled over forming an expert committee to research alternate methods of capital punishment.

However, it remains unclear how the state, any state, can find a perfect answer to these questions. The US, for example, tried. But their story with all the burning flesh and botched injections doesn't inspire much confidence, does it?

So which method of execution can be called most humane? Which method of legally sending someone tumbling towards the tentacles of death is least likely to cause pain? Will hanging an inmate by a noose uphold human dignity? Or will pumping his veins with poison, or setting his flesh ablaze on an electric chair offer better results?

In a discussion on the lethal injection, Dr Joel B Zivot, an anesthesiology and surgery expert, told CNN in 2015:

“Since we cannot ask the person now dead if the method was cruel or painless, the only way to tell is based on the way it appears to observers.”

Does this not apply to all methods of execution?

In their argument against the death penalty, Amnesty International wrote:

"The search for a “humane” way of killing people should be seen for what it is – a search to make executions more palatable to those carrying out the killing, to the governments that wish to appear humane, and to the public in whose name the killing is supposedly carried out."

In a US Supreme Court ruling, Justice Samuel Alito noted: “Holding that the Eighth Amendment demands the elimination of essentially all risk of pain would effectively outlaw the death penalty altogether.”

At one point, while hearing the PIL against hanging, Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud himself observed orally:

"There is no mode of execution which will have dignity in death."

Therefore, if we are really scrounging for a humane and dignified form of punishment, we are entirely unlikely to find our solution in the death penalty – which reduces human life to the whim of an angry state.

(With inputs from Death Penalty Information Centre, Brian Tod Jones/Medium, CNN, The Conversation, Livelaw, Bar and Bench, Amnesty International, Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, and 'Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty by Austin Sarat.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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