What ails capital punishment? A look at its past and the future.

By Siddharth Vodnala

It would’ve been the last meal of his life. Clayton Lockett refused to eat it, according to a document issued by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Just like he’d refused to meet his attorneys. Just like he’d refused to be restrained for medical examinations that were part of the state’s protocol for killing him. So he was Tasered: electricity was pumped into his body to incapacitate him for the medical exam. At 5:19 p.m. Lockett was taken from his final holding cell to be restrained on an execution table. A phlebotomist entered and checked Lockett’s arms and legs for a viable insertion point. None was found. He checked Lockett’s neck, finally decided on his groin. An IV was inserted into a vein in Lockett’s groin area. The insertion point was covered with a sheet to “prevent witness viewing of the area.”

Lockett refused to make a final statement. Midazolam, a sedative, was pumped into Lockett’s veins. Seven minutes later, a doctor checked on Lockett: still conscious. Three minutes later, he was supposedly not. Two drugs, one a paralytic and the other meant to stop his heart were then pumped in. Tweets from a local reporter who was a witness at the execution said Lockett “began to nod, mumble move body.” Lockett began writhing and moaning, while reportedly managing to say “Oh man..”, “I’m not…” and “something’s wrong.”  Witnesses said he also twitched and mumbled. At 6:37 p.m, a full five minutes after being declared unconscious, Lockett tried to rise and “exhaled loudly.” Prison officials pulled a curtain before the witnesses. A doctor examined Lockett. He found the IV line had “blown up.” Lockett’s vein had “exploded.” The doctor found that the drugs “had either absorbed into tissue, leaked out, or both.”

After an exchange between the prison director and the doctor, the execution was called off 33 minutes after it began. Ten minutes later, after suffering for nearly three quarters of an hour after the execution began, Clayton Lockett was pronounced dead. He had a heart attack.


Missouri State Penitentiary, a former maximum security prison where several executions took place. Photo credit Siddharth Vodnala.

Missouri State Penitentiary, a former maximum security prison where several executions took place. Photo credit Siddharth Vodnala.

Clayton Lockett was convicted of murder, rape, forcible sodomy, kidnapping, assault and battery and sentenced to death in 2000. His botched execution and others like it have raised questions about the gruesome, violent ways in which we put convicted prisoners to death.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments about the cruelty of the lethal injection protocols. The judges seemed split on the question along ideological lines. With the split, the hopes that many had for a moratorium on the death penalty as a whole now seem unlikely to materialize. The previously used three drug cocktail has now been rendered unviable after European drug manufacturers have stopped production and supply of such drugs to the United States.

Partly because of drug shortages and partly because of the controversy and bad PR now surrounding lethal injections, several death penalty states across the U.S. have been clamoring for a return to the more primitive execution methods like the firing squad, while also trying to find new ways to kill.

For example, Michael Copeland, a criminal justice professor in Oklahoma, wants to use nitrogen gas to kill prisoners. Copeland pitched it to an Oklahoma House committee as a painless and effective way of executing condemned prisoners. The method is fool-proof – if proper protocols are followed, he said.

“If we are going to have the death penalty, it should be more humane,” Copeland said.

Through history, governments have introduced new killing methods that were supposedly more humane. The firing squad and the gas chamber replaced the barbaric public executions of the Middle Ages, which had the intention of shocking spectators and reaffirming the authority of the King and God.

But Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist who has been vocal in his opposition to lethal injections, doubts there is such a thing as a humane way to kill people. “So we are now trying to kill people without harming them? It’s ludicrous.” 


Hugh Dispenser the Younger after being hanged, drawn and about to be quartered. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hugh Dispenser the Younger after being hanged, drawn and about to be quartered. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Certainly, more gruesome punishments than lethal injections have existed throughout history. None is probably more elaborately brutal than being hanged, drawn and quartered. An English tradition from the 14th century to the 19th, this punishment was usually reserved for high treason against the monarch. The traitor would be drawn to the gallows tied to a horse, after which he would be hanged (usually not to the point of death), disemboweled alive, beheaded and cut into four parts (quartered), according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Being boiled alive, a 16th century invention, was probably not much of an improvement on this. The victim was lowered into a boiling cauldron of water, oil or tar, causing fourth degree burns. The scalding usually extended through the entire skin, leaving the epidermis and dermis destroyed, leading to a complete breakdown of subcutaneous fat (the layer of fat that lies beneath the dermis), according to an article on Wikipedia. This would eventually expose the muscle and bone and cause severe blood loss from arteries and veins. Hence death.

Thousands of women were hanged or burnt at the stake in the Early Modern period after being accused of being witches. A slave woman accused of arson was burned to death in Massachusetts in 1681, according to the book The Case of Maria in the Court of Assistants in 1681 by John Noble.  Death might have occurred through the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning before the flames actually burnt the body or later through hypovolemia (decreased blood volume, specifically blood plasma), according to the book God’s Jury by Av Cullen Murphy. The accused could also die of heatstroke or thermal decomposition of body parts.

As public support for cruel punishments waned in the 18th and 19th centuries, many such punishments were replaced with what were thought to be more humane forms. One such method, the Guillotine, was introduced to replace the “breaking on the wheel,” a form of execution in which the victim would be placed on a rotating wheel and his limbs would literally be broken with an iron hammer or bar through the gaps in the spokes, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. After breaking of the limbs, the immobile victim would be left to die of starvation and dehydration on the wheel. While the Guillotine itself achieved its notoriety by being used to kill thousands during the French Revolution, it was originally proposed as a humane method of execution by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, whose name it bore.

This evolution of what is seen as humane punishment is also found in the history of hanging. The original method of hanging – suspension or short drop hanging – caused death by slow strangulation. This took between 10 to 20 minutes and known to be very painful as the person was entirely supported by the neck and the jaw as he or she struggled for air against the noose, according to the book The Art of Hanging by John Deane Potter. This was replaced by the standard drop, which dropped the prisoner from a greater height, thus purportedly assuring that the person’s neck would break, resulting in immediate paralysis and unconsciousness. This was in turn replaced by the long drop: a drop of 6 to 10 feet, calculated using the victim’s body weight. Here lay the promise of swift death: instant snapping of the neck or spinal cord. When the calculations went awry, however, the person could be decapitated.

The electric chair was an accidental step in the evolution of the death penalty, according to an article by PBS. It was also seen as a more “humane method” of execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The first person in the world to be legally electrocuted was a 30-year-old man named William Kemmler. As Kemmler sat in a chair dressed in a suit and necktie, the switch for 1,000 volts of electricity was flipped and current passed through Kemmler for 17 seconds. Again he was subjected to 2,000 volts for over a minute. Witnesses were said to be “nauseated,” according to an article in the Law Library, as “an awful odor began to permeate the death chamber, and then, as though to cap the climax of this fearful sight, it was seen that the hair under and around the electrode on the head and the flesh under and around the electrode at the base of the spine was singeing. The stench was unbearable.”

The gas chamber death mirrors some aspects of that unpleasantness. The original gas used was hydrogen cyanide. Caryl Chessman, a convicted robber, kidnapper and rapist and popular memoirist who was executed in 1960, apparently told reporters he would nod his head if it hurt, according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine. Witnesses to the execution, according to the book Gruesome Spectacles written by Austin Sarat, reported that Chessman nodded his head for several minutes after the execution began. A former penitentiary warden who oversaw gas chamber executions is quoted as saying: “At first there is evidence of extreme horror, pain, and strangling. The eyes pop. The skin turns purple and the victim begins to drool.” Death occurs due to hypoxia – the cutting off of oxygen to the brain.

Lethal injections were considered as a method of capital punishment almost a hundred years before they were administered for the first time, according to the book Last Words of the Executed by Robert K. Elder. At the time, morphine was considered as the drug of choice, but due to its use by doctors as a painkiller, the idea of using it to execute prisoners did not take off. Oklahoma was the first state in the U.S. and the first jurisdiction in the world to authorize the use of lethal injections as a method of execution. It was proposed by Jay Chapman, an Oklahoma medical examiner, who was contacted by a state representative for suggestions about “a more humane way” to execute inmates. After Chapman’s proposal was approved by the Oklahoma state legislature, it was adopted by other states, according to an article in Time magazine. Texas carried out the first lethal injection execution in 1982, executing Charles Brooks Jr., who was convicted of murdering an auto mechanic.


Lethal injection bed at Penitentiary of New Mexico. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Lethal injection bed at Penitentiary of New Mexico. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The original three drug protocol consisted of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic, pancuronium bromide, to cause muscle paralysis and respiratory arrest and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Some states used pentobarbital or midazolam in place of sodium thiopental after acquiring that drug became harder. Other states have used vecuronium bromide instead of pancuronium bromide, as happened in Clayton Lockett’s case in Oklahoma. Other states have used two drug protocols or single drug protocols.

Whatever the method used, Zivot thinks there is always an inherent capacity for cruelty in them. Even the lack of cruelty, Zivot said in an interview, “does not mean that there is humaneness.”

“The state is using the tools of my profession to give its executions legitimacy,” Zivot said.

Zivot is critical of the very notion of using medical expertise to prevent “botched” executions. “I find the question “Well, how can you make it better?” strange. I’m not an expert at killing. I have sworn an oath not to harm or kill anyone,” he says.

“An inmate on the execution chair is not being anesthetized. That’s a term of art. He is not being rendered unconscious, which is a profoundly difficult state to measure and understand. He is being killed.”

Recently, the American Pharmacists Association adopted a resolution against providing drugs for usage in lethal injections. Bill Fassett, a professor emeritus of pharmacy law and ethics at Washington State University, believes the recent decision of the APhA brings pharmacists in line with other healthcare providers.

“If it is not healthcare, which it is clearly not, we should not be involved,” he said. “There is an increasing idea that lethal injections are precise and almost surgical, it is almost like people think the victims are being put to sleep. The reality is different,” he said, drawing attention to recent “botched” executions.

Seema Shah, a bioethicist with the National Institutes of Health, takes issue with the drug protocols themselves. She says that many of the new drug protocols being used are experimental and unproven, in terms of their doses and combinations. “It is clear that inmates are being exposed to uncertain risks of harm without adequate oversight, attention to minimizing risk, and transparency, and this goes against where the ethics and regulation of clinical research has been for decades,” she said.


With lethal injection under fire, a newly proposed way of execution is inert gas asphyxiation, specifically nitrogen hypoxia. Hypoxia is a general term for the body or part of the body not receiving enough oxygen. Effects include panic, rapid breathing, disorientation, reduced consciousness and eventually slow heart rate, low blood pressure and finally death.

“We normally breathe in air containing 79 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen. In this method, we’d have have prisoners breathe in 100% nitrogen,” said Copeland, the Oklahoma law professor. He added that “since the human body does not detect oxygen levels but only carbon dioxide levels, the prisoner would not know he was dying.” Copeland said he found the idea after reading research from the “aviation and diving communities,” and later spoke to physicians about it.

He presented his research to members of the Oklahoma House Judiciary Committee in September of last year, showing them YouTube videos of teens breathing helium “in order to make their voice sound funny.” He tried to demonstrate that this was a safe and simple mechanism.

Others are less sanguine about using nitrogen gas to kill prisoners.

“How would you implement this? Would you put a bag on a prisoner’s head? Sedate him?,” asked Zivot. “I’ve treated hundreds of patients with hypoxia over the years,” Zivot said. “It is ridiculous to suggest that it is somehow painless or even tolerable.”

Copeland counters that proper execution protocol would ensure a smooth execution using nitrogen. “We could just have the person wear an air mask, and there is no way he would know when the switch to pure nitrogen takes place. Or the person could voluntarily take a sedative before the execution.”

And just like that, the state that invented lethal injections has placed another new tool in the American Penal System’s toolbox for killing convicts.


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