The Trump administration on Friday dramatically expanded the federal government’s ability to carry out the death penalty and use archaic methods of execution that would prove to be a national embarrassment if used in Trump’s waning days as president.
At a time when every other constitutional democracy and many religious faiths have condemned capital punishment because of its cruel assault on human dignity, Trump and his cronies have again thumbed their noses at the world and at common decency.
The new rule is worded with deceptive simplicity: “Federal executions are to be carried out by lethal injection or by any other manner prescribed by the law of the State in which the sentence was imposed.” Behind this bureaucratic prose hides a stark fact: In our supposedly civilized nation, the federal government now will be able to hang, electrocute, gas, or shoot individuals if it does not want to kill them by lethal injection.
While lethal injection is by no means an execution panacea, Trump and his minions have embraced outdated ways of carrying out death sentences. They have revived them almost entirely for their symbolic value rather than their need to use them in the unlikely event something goes awry with the lethal injection protocol. But, practically speaking, nothing now stands in the way of the federal government’s plan to put people to death by a single dose of pentobarbital.
The Trump administration is cruelly taking advantage of the fact that this country’s 22 remaining death penalty states, because they have had real difficulties obtaining lethal injection drugs, have kept older methods on the books as a last resort.
Today, nine Southern and border states prescribe death by electrocution as an alternative method of execution. Six states authorize execution by gas, and the firing squad is the alternative in three more. Remarkably, three states—Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington—still allow for death by hanging if lethal injection is unavailable or impractical.
Until Friday’s change to federal law, Mississippi and Oklahoma were the most permissive, authorizing electrocution, gas, and the firing squad in addition to lethal injection. Now the federal government, which represents all Americans, has outdone even those death belt bastions in its promiscuous embrace of execution methods.
Its decision reveals two remarkable things about America’s death penalty.
First, while most nations that still use capital punishment historically have employed only a single method of execution, over the last century the United States has added one method to another until today, when we have the full range that the Trump administration has embraced.
Second, neither our laws nor our Constitution has prompted these developments. In fact, while a few state courts have struck down one of their state’s methods of execution, the United States Supreme Court has never imposed a nationwide ban on any method of execution. Dating back to the late 19th century, it has approved the firing squad, the electric chair, and lethal injection, while other federal appellate courts have sanctioned hanging.
In fact, throughout most of our history, hanging was the primary method of execution. The first instance occurred in 1622 in Virginia to punish a cattle thief, and from then until now several different hanging methods have been tried. None of them has proven foolproof, and many have been botched, with a slow death frequently caused by strangulation, accompanied by convulsions, defecation, and protruding eyes and tongue.
At the end of the 19th century, critics of hanging proposed replacing it with the electric chair, which they claimed was less painful than hanging. First introduced in New York, the electric chair became the iconic image of execution in the United States and epitomized the modern approach until the late 20th century.
Death by electrocution is largely the same today as it was then. The condemned is strapped to a wooden chair, and a metal cap connected to electrodes is placed on his/her head. Thirty-second jolts of between 500 and 2,000 volts are then applied multiple times, with executioners checking for a heartbeat in between. The process repeats until the prisoner is dead.
But, like hanging, electrocution has proved to be far from reliable. Even when the process is done correctly, it is brutal, with the prisoner convulsing, swelling, and defecating.
Another alternative to the noose, the firing squad, became common in Utah in the middle of the 19th century, as well as in the U.S. military. Typically, the condemned is hooded and strapped to a chair; a white cloth is pinned over the heart. Five (or sometimes eight) shooters line up, with between one and three of them firing blanks. All shooters shoot simultaneously, aiming at the heart.
Lethal gas, also an allegedly humane execution method, was first adopted by Nevada in 1922. The condemned is seated in an airtight room, and hydrogen cyanide gas is pumped into the room. He is supposed to lose consciousness and die painlessly; however, witnesses have often reported evidence of extreme pain, with eyes popping and skin turning purple. The gas chamber notably fell out of favor after World War II, when gassing became associated with the Holocaust, but it persisted in some cases and was last used in 1999.
Almost 50 years ago, Oklahoma led the way in putting lethal injection, today’s preferred execution method, on the books.
Although it carries with it the appearance of medical efficiency, this method has turned out to be the most problematic of all of America’s execution technologies. Since its introduction, more than 7 percent of all lethal injections have been botched.
The story of execution methods in the United States is one of conflict between modern notions of humaneness and the desire to keep the machinery of death running. The state has attempted to reconcile this conflict through the constant reinvention and technological modernization of the execution apparatus, even as it has retained previously discredited execution methods of the kind the Trump administration now is ready to use.
Today it is unclear if any of the 54 people on the federal death row will actually be hanged, electrocuted, gassed, or shot, but Friday’s new regulation is sure to terrify them and remind them of their current government’s cruelty. For the rest of us, it is another reminder of the lengths to which Trump will go to take America down the low road, to flout our ideals, and to embarrass us in front of the world. And for what?
The death penalty makes none of us any safer, and it perpetuates forms of racial discrimination that elsewhere mark our criminal justice system. One can only hope that the government’s desire to kill as many people as it can, and by any means necessary, will cause the Biden administration to end the federal death penalty, and to provide leadership and energy to see its abolition entirely in the United States.