What it might feel like to be executed

Obviously, we don’t have any actual reports on what it feels like to be executed.  So, I’m going to use some imagination instead.  For these purposes, I’m going to assume the following:

  • I am the person being executed.
  • I am factually guilty of the crime, regardless of whether or not I feel it should be a crime carrying the death penalty.

Given these two assumptions, the following are also very likely to be true:

  • I turned myself in, if I was aware that I’d committed the crime.
  • I plead “guilty,” or possibly “no contest,” acknowledging or even requesting a death sentence.
  • I have minimized, to the best of my ability, any appeals beyond automatic appeals.

The physical sensations would, obviously, vary by method, so I’ll address them later.  The emotional feelings would be pretty consistent, with less variation.

No matter what method of execution, the main emotion would be fear.  This would have been coming and going throughout the period between being sentenced – or arrested – and the time of the execution.  As the execution gets closer and more real, that fear would increase.

This fear would be made up of several fears, most of which relate ultimately to the fear of the unknown.

There would be the fear related to what follows death.  Even with strong beliefs, human nature will still cause this fear to be real.

There would also be fear of what the execution itself will feel like, and how long will I feel this.

Finally, there would be fear caused by the feelings of restraint.

In addition to fear, I suspect there would be some fraction of depression and regret, as well as acceptance.

Now on to the physical sensations, taken one at a time.  I’ll address these one at a time for each of the methods.  I’ll work up from the bottom of my preferences from 2009.

Firing Squad/Shot

Actually, there are a few variants of being shot, and I’ll somewhat address all of them.

With the traditional firing squad tied in front of (or to) a pole, the main physical feelings once led to the spot and restrained, would be the feeling of the restraints – probably holding the feet together to prevent any movement.  I would then hear a crack – or perhaps if fear had stretched perceptions, multiple cracks.  These would be followed a fraction of a second with a push against the chest, and possibly a burning.  Quickly, blood would stop flowing due to the loss of the heart, causing a loss of consciousness and, shortly, brain death.

But, if the squad missed, the heart could be left in tact, causing pain as I bleed through a massive wound and other internal damage.

The feelings would be similar with the chair-restraint that Utah has used twice since 1977.  The difference would be being strapped to a chair, similar to an electric chair of the chair in a gas chamber.

Execution by shooting in Thailand

Execution by shooting in Thailand

Until Thailand switched to Lethal Injection, the person being executed was strapped with their back to a single machine gun, as seen in the picture to the right.  In this case the physical sensations beforehand would again primarily be the restraint against the upright pole and cross-bar.

Instead of a crack, there would be the sound of automatic weapon fire – 15 rapid cracks.  But, at the distances depicted in the photo, before – or at the same time – the sound registers, the first bullet would impact the back, pushing me against the pole and then tearing through my ribs and, eventually, heart.  At that point, the feelings and experiences would be comparable to the regular firing squad.

The final method of shooting used recently has a single executioner shoot a single shot into the back of the head.  For this I could be either kneeling with hands restrained behind my back, standing, or even lying face down.  Once I feel the barrel of the gun against my head, it would be over.  The bullet would start tearing through the brain before the sound or pressure could be processed.  All in all, a pretty quick way to go, if messy.


At this point, beheading is only being conducted with a sword.  In that case, I’d probably be led to a public square, and made to kneel.  Then I’d feel the blade briefly touch the back of my neck, leave, and start to cut in.  As the spine is severed, it would cause a rapid loss of consciousness.

Lethal Gas (Gas Chamber)

Mississippi Gas Chamber

Inside the Mississippi Gas Chamber

While I’d still rank being executed in a gas chamber above both beheading and being shot, it won’t be pleasant for anyone.

At least according to some reports, I’d go to my execution wearing nothing beyond a pair of boxer shorts.

I’d have been brought from my cell, led into the chamber, and strapped tightly down.  Depending on the chamber and chair, I’d probably have straps pulled tight across my waist and chest, and at least two straps across each arm and each leg.  I might also have my head strapped to the headrest.

A stethoscope – or EKG leads – would be secured to my chest and passed through a sealed hole in the chamber.

Then the door to the chamber would be closed and sealed from the outside.  I’d be looking at that door, especially if my head was restrained.  I’d be there for a bit of time while air was pumped out of the chamber to make sure that any leaks were into the chamber.  I’d then hear the sodium cyanide enter the acid below me.  Quickly, the chamber would fill with hydrogen cyanide gas.

Here is where fear and acceptance will fight.  My natural sense of self-preservation will want to hold my breath, my acceptance will want a deep breath.  However, even if self-preservation wins out for a while, eventually the carbon dioxide in my body would reach a point where I’d be forced to breathe.  At that point, I’d inhale the cyanide causing it to start its killing work.  Several things could happen before or after I lose consciousness.  I could develop seizures – causing me to fight the straps as my muscles try to contract.  I could also stop breathing, with the ensuing panic if still conscious.  I would also very likely have a massive heart attack with all the symptoms.  In other words, if I didn’t lose consciousness quickly, it could be a painful ride.  But, soon enough, the brain would start dying as the cyanide prevented the brain cells from receiving the oxygen required.

Electrocution (Electric Chair)

Tennessee Electric Chair

Tennessee Electric Chair

At some point in the last couple of hours, I will have had my head and one or both legs shaved.  I will have also been issued clothing without any metal, and with the legs cut part way up.  I also may well be wearing a diaper.

I’d have been led from my cell and strapped down to the electric chair.  Depending on the chair’s design, my legs might be strapped into brass cuffs partially filled with a natural sponge or cloths dampened with saline (as seen to the left), or my legs may simply be strapped into cut-outs on the bottom board.

My arms would be strapped down to the armrests of the chair, and straps would secure me to the back of the chair.

A guard or electrician would place the electrode on my head.  This would be like a cap, likely leather fitted with a copper or brass contact inside.  Inside this would also be a natural sponge soaked in saline.  If the foot electrodes weren’t integrated into the chair, the same person would then affix electrodes to both legs.

I would then be blindfolded.  This might be as simple as a hood, often depicted in movies.  However, it is more likely that this will also be a strap to pull my head back against the chair and hold it in place.

When the initial jolt hits, I should loose consciousness due to the electricity disrupting the natural electrical activity in the brain.  Muscles along the path between my head and legs will tighten, including the heart muscles.  Should the straps not be tight enough, this could cause visible movement.  This could also cause contraction of both the bowel and the bladder.  Over time, parts of my body would be cooked due to resistive heating.

 Lethal Injection

Texas Lethal Injection Table

Texas Lethal Injection Table

Likely in the last day or so, I’ve had someone with medical training locate – and possibly mark in pen – at least two veins.

I would have been led from my cell and into the execution chamber.  I’d have had to climb onto the table, with help if my legs were still shackled.  I’d be strapped tightly down to the table to secure my ankles, legs and upper body.  My arms would either be strapped or taped to boards on the side of the table, palms up exposing the inside of my elbows.

Medically trained people would then have to locate the designated veins, and get an IV started.  I’ve had this done enough, and also have donated blood which starts with a similar procedure, so I know that this takes more time than is usually depicted in movies and TV shows.  Once two IVs are hooked up, both would be connected to a saline drip.  When the IVs are started, there will have been a sharp pain, which dies, but they remain noticeable.

At this point there might be a fair amount of time before the actual execution.  I suspect that the procedures for conducting an execution have to account for the fact that many people who are sentenced to death have been intravenous drug users and may not have easy to locate veins or otherwise be difficult to get an IV started on.

Once the execution starts, I’d be overcome with rapid, deep, sleep from the initial drug.  It is possibly that stopping the breathing, or the heart, might cause some level of alarm in the brain causing a partial regaining of consciousness, but this isn’t all that likely.

Hanging (Long or Measured Drop)

Kuwait Hanging

Drug Dealer Hanged in Kuwait

At, or just before, the point of the execution, I would have been led from my cell.  My arms would be restrained – possibly cuffed behind my back with standard cuffs, strapped behind me with one or more leather straps, or even strapped to my waist.  After being positioned over the trap, my legs would be strapped together.  Some pictures of persons executed in Kuwait show that at least there they leave the legs shackled, which would cause the cuffs to press into the legs with a great deal of force.

Once secured, a hood would be put in place.  This would be followed by the noose.  The noose would be positioned so that the end of the loop is placed just under my left ear.  The noose would be pulled fairly tight, and kept from loosening with a rubber washer.

Once the trap is sprung, I would fall for a fraction of a second.  Then I would stop, pulling the noose tighter.  The rope would push my head sharply to the right and back.  Between these, my spine would be severed completely, rapidly leading to unconsciousness.  I’d likely stop breathing if the spine was severed above the C3 vertebrate.  Either way, my larynx would be crushed making it impossible to get any air in.  After six or so minutes without breathing, my brain would die, and in another 10 to 20 minutes, my heart would stop beating.


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