The bungled execution in April of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma has apparently led to an upsurge of the debate about the administration of capital punishment in the US. There’s an interesting blog about it in the Daily Telegraph today. Amongst the more bizarre claims that have been made is that lethal injection, the method favoured by capital punishment jurisdictions in the US, is somehow ‘humane’.
In reality, the lethal injection protocols used for executions in the US are anything but humane. This is not particularly because they cause pain – if the execution is carried out properly with an effectively administered anaesthetic as the first drug it shouldn’t do – but because of the drawn out nature of the process. The lethal injection ‘protocol’ will normally require that an IV line is inserted in the prisoner’s arm or leg in the minutes leading up to the execution. Many of those who have been executed have severely compromised veins as the result of intravenous drug abuse and the reality has been that it can take an extended period of time to even find a vein which will accommodate an IV line. In the past, it was sometimes necessary for doctors to perform a small ‘cut-down’ procedure to locate an undamaged vein, although since the AMA banned doctors from participating in executions, that option has been lost unless performed by a nurse or paramedic.
Of course, whilst all this is taking place, the prisoner knows they are minutes away from death. It’s hard to imagine a more completely terrifying situation to be in. Can a society meting out dispassionate justice really want this? Once the IV is inserted and the prisoner is strapped to a gurney and brought to the execution chamber, they are then forced to listen to whatever pantomime rigmarole the state which is executing them has devised before the drugs, hitherto a sedative, a paralytic and a poison are administered slowly in sequence. Even if the process works properly, it takes some minutes for the prisoner to die. If, as was the case with Clayton Lockett, the process is mishandled the prisoner can suffer extreme pain: Lockett survived his execution – he died of a heart attack.
My research into treason led to me taking a somewhat ghoulish interest in the administration of the death penalty in Britain. Capital punishment remained on the statute books for High Treason until 1998 (the last executions – for murder – actually took place in 1964) but the method used, hanging, was refined over many hundreds of years so that, by the end, it was a relatively quick process, devoid of the rigmarole which still surrounds executions in the US.
When Albert Pierrepoint was Britain and Ireland’s principal hangman in the 1940s and 50s, he prided himself on the speed and efficiency of his work. Preparation for the execution was made without any interaction with the prisoner and when the time came it was all over in a matter of seconds. In the prisons in which executions took place, there was normally a purpose built condemned cell adjacent to the gallows in order to spare the prisoner a long and terrifying walk through the prison. Pierrepoint made every effort to carry out hangings as quickly as possible and when he executed James Inglis on 8 May 1951 just 7 seconds elapsed from Pierrepoint and his assistant Dernley entering the condemned cell to Inglis – an acquaintance of Pierrepoint who had committed a gruesome sex murder – being dead on the end of the rope. There was no question of prisoners being made to stand around – anticipating imminent death – waiting for their charge sheet or sentence to be read out, nor of making it into a spectacle for the families of victims to watch, as seems to be routine in many American states to this day. This is not to suggest that judicial hanging was humane but it was quick.
And Pierrepoint’s victims were dead. They were rendered instantaneously unconscious by a massive concussion to the head delivered by the brass eye of the noose, and killed by a high cervical fracture with severance of the spinal cord and occlusion of the airway. The heart might continue to beat for a minute or two after death but there was no question of lasting pain or consciousness after the hanging had taken place.
Perhaps even more effective was the guillotine, the only legal method of civil execution in France from 1792 until the abolition of the death penalty there in 1981 (the last execution took place in 1977). Rapid decapitation leads to a catastrophic drop in blood pressure and consequent unconsciousness and death – without significant pain due to the severance of the spinal cord – in no more than two or three seconds.
There is nothing especially humane about execution by lethal injection… except perhaps for those inflicting it. Making an execution look like a medical procedure disguises what it actually is, but it leaves the prisoner just as dead and when it is done badly, it is likely to impose a significant amount of suffering. It is hard to see how this can be tolerable in a civilised society.
And it’s happened again: see here. Whether you support capital punishment or not, it’s hard to see how it is tolerable to take two hours to execute a human being, however heinous the crime that they have committed. This is no better than the kind of punishments that were meted out in the Middle Ages.