On bodily functions and execution

In my last post, I mentioned my apparently mistaken belief that it was almost inevitable that someone would urinate, and possibly defecate, during their execution.  Evidence shows that this isn’t the case, at least for hangings (two pictures out of the numerous from Kuwait and Iran).

There are a few things that led me to this conclusion:

  • An article in US News and World Report that was published and into microfiche when I was in college in the late 1980’s.  This article mentioned that in Louisiana condemned inmates must wear a diaper during their execution in the electric chair.
  • The Discovery Channel documentary The Execution Protocol, which mentioned that in Missouri at that time condemned inmates were catheterized and given a rectal plug, thus making both urination and defecation impossible.
  • A home-made early internet video that discussed the preparations for an execution in an electric chair – using a home-built prop chair.  This mentioned using a, presumably cloth, diaper and a vinyl over-brief.

Thinking about it, I can see why diapers might be used in the electric chair.  One of the affects electrocution has on the body is the contraction of muscles.  While I cannot find reports that an electrical path from head to foot is likely to cause the bladder muscles to contract, so it is possible that urination is not an uncommon occurrence during electric chair executions.

Further, if the urine runs into the wrong places it could interfere with the execution – possibly endangering someone else.  Even if there is no chance of anyone getting hurt, it could cause other disturbing affects – I’m thinking that damp pants could lead to sparks and even fires.

Diapers aren’t the only method of dealing with urine and feces. Some chairs have used a drip pan.  This would give urine and more liquid feces to flow into the pan and not get anywhere near the electrodes.

In lethal injection, I am guessing that the problem comes from the second drug used in the classic three drug combination, the second drug causes muscles to relax.  Should this include the sphincter muscle for the bladder, at least some urine would pass into the urethra.  While this wouldn’t cause a safety issue, it could be disturbing to witnesses and complicate the handling of the body after execution.

There is one other reason why diapers may be used in executions, especially in the ceremonial way that they are carried out in the United States: nervous peeing.  This is a result of our natural fight or flight response.  And, while a person about to be executed may know, understand, and accept what is going to happen, I cannot help but think that it would be terrifying to be in that situation.  If that fear was enough to trigger the full reactions, nervous peeing could occur.

When executions are carried out in the US, tradition calls for the sentence to be read and the condemned inmate offered a final statement before the execution is carried out.  Usually, this is done after the inmate is restrained, which adds time during the most fearful part, so I suspect the nervous peeing is more common here than in places where executions are quicker.

I can also find justification for a diaper, or a catheter, just for the nervous peeing, as it preserves the dignity of the inmate – whether they deserve it or not – and make handling the body easier after the execution is complete.