Thoughts About Methods of Execution

Being executed would not be pleasant. Even though I have often fantasized, and wrote, about the experience, in most ways I would not want to go though it. There is, unfortunately, a part of me that still would like to experience it. If I lived with a different set of moral and social bounds, I’d probably be tempted to find a group where I could try playing at an execution. The scariest part is that, I fear, without strong control I might take action that would directly lead me to really be executed. However, I am going to try to describe how I imagine executions taking place, using many of the methods used during the last 100 years is civilized countries.

Civilized countries have, in the last 150-200 years, made an effort to make executions into something other then a torture that results in the person dying. Due to politics, many of these methods have been abandoned – either for even “cleaner” methods, or in far to many places, because the death penalty has been abolished. I am, therefore, going to extrapolate and describe how the methods would be used to conduct an execution in the United States of 2004. Since I’m creating an unsupported alternate reality, I’m going to further assume that executions are fairly common (400-600 each year, about the same number of executions per-capita as during the period from 1900-1920). From here on out, this report is written from the perspective of this imagined world.

Common properties

For all of the methods, there are many common elements. Most of these have to do with what happens to the condemned before they are executed, and what happens to their body afterwards.

For the purpose of this essay, the execution preparation will begin when the recently convicted defendant is officially sentenced to death. A judge, usually the one that presided over the trial will sentence the defendant to death. The exact words are up to the judge, but they will include words to the effect of “the sentence of death be imposed upon you.” The judge will also clearly charge the state’s Department of Corrections, or the equivalent, with carrying out the sentence. The defendant will also be ordered transported to a specified facility and held there until the time of their execution. The sentence will also describe in legal terms the method of execution, or make provisions for doing so later.

Shortly after being sentenced, the condemned will be transported to death row. In many, probably most, states, condemned inmates will be housed separately, and will remain under maximum confinement. Under these conditions, they will spend most or all of each day locked in their cell. How long they wait on death row will depend on their appeals.

After any automatic review, the prison or the court will set an execution date and ask the governor for a warrant. In some states the court may issue the warrant instead. Often time a stay of execution will be issued well before the scheduled date, and a new date will be scheduled. Eventually, the date will get close and no stay will be issued. At that time a warrant will be issued and sent to the prison.

Once the prison receives the warrant, they will inform the condemned inmate, and will transfer them to a cell near to where the execution will be performed. Once in this cell, the condemned will be watched 24 hours a day.

The execution will be scheduled at a specific time. This time will be set depending on the laws and traditions of the state, and any necessities. Multiple executions may occur on the same day, and persons convicted of the same crime will often be executed at the same time.

Several hours before the scheduled execution, the condemned will receive their last meal. The condemned will be allowed to choose just about anything they want, within reason. Alcoholic beverages, however, will not be allowed.

After they finish their last meal, the condemned will be given an opportunity to write a final statement, and to visit with clergy and their lawyers.

At some point before the execution, the condemned inmate will be prepared for the execution. The exact details of this preparation will very depending on the methods, but there will be some commonalities.

First, the condemned will either be diapered, or will have a catheter and a rectal plug. Diapers are preferred as they require less training to apply, and are somewhat more comfortable. Heavy-duty cloth diapers are used. Over the diaper, the condemned will wear a heavy-duty vinyl brief. Over this, they will wear clothing appropriate to the method.

In most cases, there will be some slack time after the preparation, and the condemned will be locked back up in their cell until the time of the execution.

After the execution, the body will be taken to the medical examiner and given an autopsy to officially determine the cause of death. Unless there are strong religious objections, the body is cremated and interred anonymously.

Hanging by the “Long Drop”

Condemned inmates sentenced to be hung will be dressed in a standard prison uniform over their diaper. Often times they will be manacled during their final wait. Particularly violent inmates will be further restrained with hand cuffs or a waist chain.

Five minutes before the scheduled execution, the extraction team will enter the condemned’s cell. In the cell, the condemned will have his hands bound either behind his back, or to his waist. Leather or nylon straps are used for this. If the wrists are bound behind the back, a second strap will be secured around the upper arm to make sure that the condemned’s arms are firmly held.

Once restrained, the condemned will be led to the gallows. The gallows are located in an upper-floor room, on the same level as the condemned’s cell. Below the gallows room is enough space to handle the largest drop. In the gallows room, the condemned will be positioned with their feet centered on the trap door. Once their feet are in place, they will be strapped together – usually without removing the manacle. Should the condemned be unable or unwilling to stand, they will be strapped to a board that will hold them upright.

Once secured, the warden, or another official, will read the warrant. Once the warrant has been read, the condemned will be offered the chance to make a final statement, and to have a prayer said on their behalf.

Once this is done, a hood is pulled over the condemned’s head. The noose is fitted around the condemned’s neck, and pulled tight. The knot, which is usually a grommet, is placed just below the left ear.

At the specified time, the trap door will be released and pulled clear. The condemned will fall for a fraction of a second. When they hit the end of the rope, their weight and speed will help it pull tight, forcing their head sharply to the right. In most cases this will severe their spinal cord and cause them to fall into a deep coma. While in this coma, they will be paralyzed from the neck down. Muscles will slowly relax. In most cases this will result in the condemned defecating and urinating.

At the same time, the rope will prevent the condemned from being able to breathe. This will lead to a lack of oxygen which will kill the brain in 5 to 10 minutes, and the heart in a few more minutes.

Should the hanging fail to cause unconsciousness, the condemned will not feel anything from the neck down. They will however, feel the rope cutting into their neck, and the effects of the oxygen deprivation.

By tradition, the body will be left hanging for at least half-an-hour before being taken down.

Firing Squad

Condemned inmates sentenced to be shot will wear a long, dark t-shirt and pants over their diaper. They will often be manacled during their final wait. Particularly violent inmates will be further restrained with hand cuffs or a waist chain.

Five to seven minutes before the scheduled execution, the extraction team will enter the condemned’s cell. In the cell, the condemned will be manacled, if they had not been earlier. Their hands will be secured behind their backs and to their waist using a waist chain, turned backwards from its normal usage. Before leaving the cell, a light-colored target will be attached to the front of the condemned’s shirt, directly over his heart.

Once restrained the condemned will be led to the shooting range. This is usually outdoors, necessitating that the execution occur during daylight hours. Near the end of the range where the condemned enters will be one or more backstops, usually large poles set into the ground. The condemned will be led to one of these poles and will be stood in front of it. A chain attached to the pole will be hooked to the chain around their waist, limiting their movement.

Once secured, the warden, or another official, will read the warrant. Once the warrant has been read, the condemned will be offered the chance to make a final statement, and to have a prayer said on their behalf.

After this, the condemned will be blindfolded.

At the specified time an order will be given to the firing squad, traditionally a team of 5 men with rifles. One of the rifles is often, randomly, loaded with a blank. The firing squad will fire at the order.

Unless a member of the firing squad is not up to their responsibilities, four bullets will strike the condemned within a fraction of a second. These bullets will be aimed at the target. They will rip through his chest, destroying the heart and other major organs.

Often the condemned will not notice the bullets strike. However, within a few seconds, blood will stop flowing to the brain and he will loose consciousness and his brain will die a couple of minutes later. As the body relaxes in death, the condemned may urinate or defaecate.

Electric Chair

Before dressing, condemned inmates sentenced to the electric chair will have their head and at least one leg shaved. They will be given a cool shower and dried off. In most states the condemned will wear a high-security prison jumpsuit – one with no metal zippers. A few states still dress the condemned in a white shirt and pants. In either case, the pants of one or both legs are slit to the knees. Often the condemned will be manacled during their final weight. Particularly violent inmates will be further restrained with hand cuffs or a waist chain.

About ten minutes before the scheduled execution, the extraction team will enter the condemned’s cell. Depending on the length of the walk and the violence of the condemned, they may be cuffed and manacled at this time, or they may be left unrestrained.

The condemned will then be led to the room housing the electric chair. They will be led in front of the chair and forced to sit in it. They will then be restrained in the chair, usually with straps across their waist and chest. Their arms will be strapped to the arms, and usually to the back, of the chair. Their legs will be secured to the front of the chair. Depending on the design of the chair, the ankle restraints may also be electrical contacts, which will be lined with a damp cloth.

Once secured, the warden, or another official, will read the warrant. Once the warrant has been read, the condemned will be offered the chance to make a final statement, and to have a prayer said on their behalf.

After this, the electrodes will be attached. If the leg electrode is not part of the chair, it will be attached first. Then the head electrode will be attached. The head electrode is integrated into a leather helmet which is kept wet. A sponge will usually be used under the electrode to make sure that good contact is made. Finally, the condemned’s head will be restrained, either with straps that pull it up, or with a combination strap and mask that pulls it to the back of the chair.

At the specified time, the electricity will be turned on. Most states use a three part execution. The first minute will be at a higher voltage, which will then be reduced for the second minute, and back to full power for the third, and final minute.

When the current first hits their body, the condemned will noticeably tense, but usually they relax in a few seconds. They will probably feel a few seconds of the burning, but will quickly loose consciousness. During the execution, their body will heat up. In many cases the fluid in their eyes will boil, bursting them. They will often get a nose bleed and will almost always urinate and defaecate

Five to seven minutes after the electricity is turned off, the body will be cool enough for an examination.

Gas Chamber

Condemned men sentenced to the gas chamber will wear only a pair of boxer shorts over their diaper. Condemned women will be given a smock. They will have either a stethoscope, or a set of EKG leads attached to their chest once they are dressed. Often the condemned will be manacled during their final weight. Particularly violent inmates will be further restrained with hand cuffs or a waist chain.

About five minutes before the scheduled execution, longer if two people are being executed at the same time, the extraction team will enter the condemned’s cell. Depending on the length of the walk and the violence of the condemned, they may be cuffed and manacled at this time, or they may be left unrestrained.

The condemned will then be led to the gas chamber. Once inside they will be turned and forced to sit in the chair. They will then be restrained in the chair, usually with straps across their waist and chest. Their arms will be strapped to the arms, and usually to the back, of the chair. Their legs will be secured to the front of the chair. In some states, the condemned’s head will be secured to the back of the chair. The stethoscope or EKG will be hooked up.

Once secured, the warden, or another official, will read the warrant. Once the warrant has been read, the condemned will be offered the chance to make a final statement, and to have a prayer said on their behalf.

After this, the chamber will be sealed, and air will be pumped out to reduce the air pressure inside.

At the specified time, sodium cyanide pellets will be lowered into a pan containing diluted sulphuric acid. This will release hydrogen cyanide gas into the chamber.

The condemned may either choose to breathe this gas in to quicken the process, or to hold their breath in an attempt to prolong their life. In either case, they will eventually end up breathing in the cyanide gas.

To the condemned one immediate effect of the gas is that they will feel like they are unable to breathe. However, their body will absorb the gas through the lungs anyway. As the cyanide displace the oxygen in their system, their skin will turn purple. They will feel intense pain in their arms, back and chest like they were having a heart attack. They will suffer muscle spasms. In most cases they will defaecate and may urinate.

The condemned will loose consciousness in two to three minutes. Their brain will die in a few more minutes, and their heart will stop in seven to fifteen minutes.

About five minutes after their heart has stopped, the gas will be pumped from the chamber. Guards in chemical gear will enter the chamber, neutralize the remaining cyanide with ammonia and will remove the body.

Lethal Injection

Condemned inmates sentenced to death by lethal injection will wear a prison jumpsuit over their diaper. This suit will be loose fitting to make sure that the blood flows back from the arms easily. They will have EKG leads attached to their chest under the suit.

About thirty to forty-five minutes before the scheduled execution, the extraction team will enter the condemned’s cell. Depending on the length of the walk and the violence of the condemned, they may be cuffed and manacled at this time, or they may be left unrestrained.

They will be led to the gurney which will be used for the execution. If this is movable gurney, it may be located outside of the room where the execution will be performed. The condemned will be helped onto this gurney and will be restrained with straps around their ankles, across their knees and waist and across their chest. Both arms will be restrained to the sides, with their wrists and elbows up. If needed they will be wheeled into the room for the execution once restrained.

Next, guards will examine both arms looking for a vein. Once a vein is located, a large-gage needle is inserted into the vein and taped in place. This is hooked to an I-V line which will feed a saline solution into the condemned. If veins cannot be located in both arms, the guards will look for alternate locations . If two good veins cannot be located, which is often the case for former drug users, a cut-down procedure will be used. This will require that a deep cut be made in the condemned’s arm so that the needle can be inserted into a deep vein.

Once both needles are inserted, the warden, or another official, will read the warrant. Once the warrant has been read, the condemned will be offered the chance to make a final statement, and to have a prayer said on their behalf.

Depending on how long it took to secure the condemned, and how long it took to find two good veins, there may be a bit of a delay before the scheduled time for the execution. Because of the saline flowing into their body, the condemned may become desperate to urinate.

At the specified time, the first of two or three chemicals will be injected into the condemned. This first chemical, usually sodium tiopental, puts the condemned into a deep sleep.

One minute later, the second chemical will be injected. This chemical, usually pancuronium bromide, paralyzes the diaphragm stopping breathing. The condemned may, in some way, be aware that they are not breathing, but their unconsciousness will prevent them from reacting. This chemical may also cause them to loose control of their bladder, which will cause them to urinate. They may also defaecate.

One minute later, the final chemical will be injected. This chemical, usually potassium chloride, will cause the hear to stop. Other muscles between the arm and the heart may cramp. Shortly after this the brain will die.

Beheading by Guillotine

Condemned inmates sentenced to be beheaded by the guillotine, will wear a prison uniform over their diaper. The collar of this uniform will be removed, keeping their neck exposed. They will often be manacled during their final wait. Particularly violent inmates will be further restrained with hand cuffs or a waist chain.

About five minutes before the scheduled execution, the extraction team will enter the condemned’s cell. In the cell, the condemned will be manacled, if they had not been earlier. Their hands will be secured behind their backs and to their waist using a waist chain, turned backwards from its normal usage.

The condemned will then be led to the guillotine.

There, the warden, or another official, will read the warrant. Once the warrant has been read, the condemned will be offered the chance to make a final statement, and to have a prayer said on their behalf.

The condemned will be then walked to the bascule, a tall board. The condemned will then be strapped to this board. The straps will cross their back, and legs. Their head and neck will be above the board.

The board is then tipped down, leaving the condemned facing down, and slid into place. A clamp, called the lunette, is fastened around the condemned’s neck.

At the specified time, the blade will be released. It will fall severing the condemned’s head from their neck. The head will fall, and they will loose consciousness almost immediately and die a few seconds later. The body will live for a minute or two.

Observations

Since the purpose of any method of execution is to make sure that the condemned inmate dies, their comfort and the comfort of the witnesses is always somewhat of a secondary issue. Executions also must be conducted in a way to maximum the safety of the prison officials who have to carry them out, and to minimize the expense to the state.

Many people conclude that lethal injection is ideal since it is relative comfortable to the witnesses, who simply see the condemned go to sleep then die. However, it is considerably less comfortable to the condemned. For the condemned, one of the worst aspects of the execution will be the complete loss of control in the last few hours and minutes of their life. As documented above, any person being executed will suffer a loss of control when they are restrained in preparation for their execution.

Persons being executed by lethal injection will be restrained for up to thirty minutes. During much of that time, they will have needles in their arms. If everything goes quickly, they may find themselves lying restrained for quite a while waiting. Other methods of execution offer much shorter periods of complete restraint.