Take My Life, Please

Merciful (but messy) alternatives to lethal injection.

As the debate over the constitutionality of death by lethal injection made its way to the Supreme Court in last month’s case of Hill v. McDonough, Florida’s attorney general proposed a novel way to settle the issue: In a brief submitted to the court last January, prosecutors responded to convicted murderer Clarence Hill’s claim that the state’s current lethal-injection protocol will subject him to “excruciating pain before death” by suggesting that the condemned come up with a better idea himself. When the issue was raised during oral argument, Justice Stephen Breyer quipped that Hill might as well simply suggest “old age.”

Certainly if you consider the history of execution methods, or the way capital punishment is meted out around the world, lethal injection actually looks like a fairly kind method. Nonetheless, Hill may still have some preferable alternatives if he looks at the matter from his perspective, rather than worrying about the sensibilities of his witnesses.

Start with the odd veterinary analogy: As Justice John Paul Stevens suggested at oral argument in Hill, if a Miami vet put a dog to sleep using Florida’s current execution protocol, they would be violating the state’s animal-cruelty laws. So, rather than tinkering with a method that doesn’t even meet “minimum veterinary standards” for euthanizing pets, why not consider a USDA-approved method for slaughtering cattle? One of the most common techniques currently in use is “captive bolt stunning,” which “induces instant insensibility by both concussion and physical destruction of the brain.”

An early attempt at ensuring a merciful death—the garrote—used a similar mechanism. During the Spanish Inquisition, the garrote was reserved for heretics who converted to Christianity after being condemned to death. Rather than burning alive with the unrepentant, they were mercifully strangled with a sharp cord. While this is “humane” only in comparison to purification by fire, a later version of the same concept, consisting of aniron collar with a large metal screw in the back, was supposed to cause immediate death. The theory behind the garrote was that when the screw was tightened, it would crush the brain stem and kill the inmate instantly. However, if the screw missed the precise point where the brain meets the spinal column, it would simply bore into the inmate’s neck while the iron collar strangled him.

In contrast to this unreliable contraption, Dr. Joseph Guillotin’s “simple mechanism” for decapitation always worked as intended. The prisoner facing the guillotine was placed facedown on a large wooden plank, their head secured in a brace and steadied by an executioner’s assistant known as “the Photographer,” who held onto their hair (or, in the case of bald prisoners, their ears). When everything was in place, a 120-pound blade was dropped from 7 feet in the air, immediately severing the prisoner’s head.

The guillotine was extremely bloody, but, unlike the garrote—or modern lethal injections—it never missed.

There is, however, still some debate over whether inmates retain consciousness after being decapitated. After witnessing the execution of Henri Languille in 1905, one Dr. Beaurieux was certain they did. Several seconds after the blade dropped, Dr. Beaurieux tested his theory by calling out “Languille!” in a “strong, sharp voice.”

I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions … but with an even movement. … Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me.

With stories like these, it’s hard to ignore the possibility that inmates may briefly survive a beheading. A perfect method should leave no room for doubt.

European nations aren’t much help here. They continued to use the garrote and guillotine well into the 1970s, and—with execution rates steadily dropping until the E.U. abolished capital punishment altogether in 1983—they had little incentive to update their methods. For a more modern approach, then, we should turn to the current execution capital of the world: China. According to Amnesty International, at least 1,770 executions took place in China last year, (nearly 80 percent of the worldwide total for 2005), though the actual number may be closer to 8,000. Whatever the exact figure, the vast majority of today’s executions occur in the People’s Republic, and the majority of these executions are carried out with firearms.

Chinese law calls for a rifleman to fire “a single shot from an assault rifle to the back of the head with a hollow point bullet.” On impact, the “hollow point bullet” explodes, destroying the top half of the inmate’s head. If instantaneous death means anything, it means instant brain death. The guillotine might not achieve this, but the Chinese method of execution certainly does.

Far more elaborate than the Chinese method, although also far less reliable, is the American firing squad. Still a valid method of execution on the books in Idaho, Oklahoma, and Utah, it consists of five riflemen—one with blanks to “spare the conscience of the executioners“—aiming at a cloth target over the hooded inmate’s heart. Riflemen who’ve missed their target have hit everything from the condemned’s shoulder to the ankle. While this might result in a lingering death, victims of bad aim have most often been “relieved” with a shot to the head. The advantage of the Chinese method over this is that it goes directly for the coup de grâce.

Even here, though, one could raise an objection: A gunshot to the head only destroys the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that registers “distress” and “suffering.” But because pain reception occurs throughout the body, an inmate might still “feel” pain after brain death. (The same issue arises with boiling lobsters alive: They have no cerebral cortex, but they do have pain receptors aplenty.) And as tendentious as this may sound, it’s not so far from the current fuss over the proper dosage of sodium thiopental for anesthetizing a 200-pound man, or the adverse effect of pancuronium bromide on cats. Either way, we can bypass the whole question with a method that instantly destroys both the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Precisely such a method can be found in the 1888 report of the “Gerry Commission.” The governor of New York formed this commission to find a “humane and efficient” alternative to hanging. Their final report suggested electrocution, but not before reviewing every method used in the past, from “Auto da fè,” to “Wild beasts.” For a method that instantly destroys all the body’s pain receptors, consider the fourth item in their exhaustive and pedantic list. A paraphrase wouldn’t do it justice:

4) Blowing from a cannon … “The insurgent Sepoy, lashed to the cannon’s mouth, within two seconds of pulling the trigger, is blown into 10,000 atoms.” “Here,” [the witness] adds, “is no interval for suffering, as no sooner has the peripheral sensation reached the central perceptive organ than that organ is dissipated to the four winds of heaven.”

The report dismissed such “barbarisms” as unworthy of consideration, and it’s hard to disagree. But then the commission also objected to the garrote, the guillotine, and the firing squad as “needlessly shocking to the necessary witnesses.” It was a short step from here to the needless complexity and fallibility of the electric chair, and simple and effective methods have been passed over ever since in favor of self-serving displays of “humanity.”

For instance, it’s widely acknowledged that a single, massive dose of barbiturates would be far more reliable, and less painful, than the current “three-drug cocktail” used in lethal injections, but states have resisted even minor changes to the lethal injection protocol. According to an Oregon corrections official quoted in the New York Times, a single drug overdose would take too long and “subject witnesses to discomfort” [Emphasis mine]. Ignore appearances, and the task of ensuring a quick and painless death is simple. But, as it stands, witness sensibilities trump nearly all other concerns.

States would never adopt the garrote, then, because it looks like a medieval torture device; questions about its reliability are beside the point. Albert Camus may have shuddered at the “living yet uprooted head” that the guillotine produced, but wardens are more likely to shudder at all that blood. And if a prison guard never shoots a blindfolded and kneeling inmate in the back of the head, it won’t be for fear that the inmate will experience a tingle in his polymodal nociceptors after brain death. Although it’s the simplest method imaginable, an “execution style” killing would simply be too blatant.

State executions today are strictly medical procedures, complete with lab coats and white sheets. Strapped to the gurney and carefully injected with an IV, the inmate looks as though he’ll recover nicely. Though recent challenges have again revealed that the lab coats are worn by amateurs and the IVs are frequently botched, executioners can rest assured that theirgoal will ultimately be met. Prisoners may very well suffer needlessly excruciating deaths, but the witnesses won’t feel a thing.