Choreographed death: legal execution in the United States

June 3, 2012

Lethal injection gurney-AP Photo

The death sentence is an acceptable punishment in the United States. It is the ultimate sentence that can be given to a criminal. Once a person is convicted and sentenced to die they are sent to death row to await their execution. Because of the appeal process the sentence may not be carried out for many years. There are thousands of prisoners languishing on deathrow in the United States awaiting their time.

The accepted method of execution in most States now is lethal injection. This usually consists of the administration of three drugs given is stages. The prisoner is strapped down on a gurney in the execution chamber and an IV is started. The first drug given is a sedative, then a saline flush is given to clear the lines. Next a drug is given which paralyzes the inmate. Finally the last drug given stops the heart resulting in death within seconds. The execution is deemed completed when a doctor pronounces the inmate dead. All in all I pretty relaxing way to die for these violent offenders who in most cases killed their victims in the most callous and evil ways.

Other methods still exist in some States. These are usually alternative measures which the inmate can select instead of lethal injection. They include the gas chamber, the electric chair, hanging and firing squad.

Electric chair:
Before lethal injection this was the most common method of execution. First used in 1924. The first night 5 men were executed using the chair or “Old Sparky” as it is sometimes referred to. Improper use of the chair resulted in painful death.

Gas chamber:
This was another very common method used in many States. The gas used was hydrogen cyanide. Execution was in a sealed chamber which in some cases could be used to execution two individuals at once. It was expensive because of the maintenance needed to ensure the chamber didn’t leak. Death in the gas chamber was slow and painful.

Firing squad:
Not a common method it is still legal in Utah. It consists of a firing squad of five shooters, four have loaded rounds, and one has a blank round. The shooters don’t know which one has the blank. The inmate is seated and strapped in with a target placed over his heart.

Little has changed with this method since the 1800’s. A noose is placed around the inmate’s neck, he is bound and dropped through a trap door. He drops until the rope snaps his neck. Proper executions using this method rely on an accurate calculation of the prisoner’s weight and length of rope needed. The noose should break the neck resulting in death. Improper calculations resulted in decapitations and injury without death.

Because the death sentence is mandated by the court proper legal and application procedures are always followed. Unfortunately it is likely that innocent prisoners have been executed in the past. Over the last few decades since the advent of DNA testing many prisoners on death row have been exonerated of their crimes. Without this recourse they would have been legally killed.

In the case of a death sentence the prisoner is entitled to all appeals available to him or her. Some States like California have separate penalty phases of trials to determine the appropriateness of the death sentence once the person has been found guilty. The prosecution and the defence both have the opportunity to present evidence and witnesses related to whether the prisoner should receive the death sentence for the crime.

Some interesting facts:

  • last public execution in the U.S. was in 1936 in Kentucky when 10,000 attended
  • Texas, Virginia, and Ohio are the States carrying out the most executions
  • the last hanging was in Delware in 1996
  • in Texas victims families have been allowed to witness executions since 1995
  • it is illegal to record and execution with camera, camcorder, audio recorder or any other method
  • usual witnesses to executions are lawyers, relatives of the inmate, and media

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