In March 2015, Utah lawmakers approved the
use of firing squads to execute death row inmates. This comes after lethal injection
drugs were discontinued in 2011, when the drug’s only manufacturer left the US. Since
then, states have been scrambling to find a humane, painless, and efficient execution
method. So we wanted to find out… What is the most humane method of execution? How humane one method is compared to another
is highly debated, but a widely cited 1993 study examined executions from around the
world to find out how painful each method was. They wrote that although most people
assume capital punishment is instantaneous and painless, in nearly every case, the opposite
is usually true. Firing squads can be considered a fast and
effective alternative to injections, but according to the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment,
being shot is not an efficient method because it does not guarantee immediate death. Additionally,
those subject to a firing squad are likely to feel pain during the time it takes to bleed
out. Hangings are supposed to work by quickly fracturing
and dislocating the neck. The 1993 study notes that often prisoners will grimace and shake
violently, which are clear signs of distress. However, this could also be due to spinal
reflexes – since hangings are supposed to sever the nervous system and prevent pain.
But, consider that the heart can take up to 20 minutes to stop beating after a person
is hung, and the brain is still able to process sensory signals from above the neck. Although
it is efficient, it’s likely not humane. Electrocution used to be a popular method
in the United States throughout the 20th century. One of the biggest problems was that since
electrocution works by essentially “cooking” the brain and internal organs, survival can
be excruciatingly painful. Nebraska was the only state left to exclusively offer the electric
chair, before deciding it was “cruel and unusual” in 2008.
Gassing is problematic because most people who are gassed tend to hold their breath,
which unnecessarily lengthens the time it takes to die. Scientists have pointed towards
hyperventilation, vomiting, and headaches as possible distressing reactions.
Finally, we’re left with intravenous injections. Although firing squads have a higher success
rate, IVs are considered much more humane. The body is dosed with an anesthetic, then
a muscle relaxant which causes respiratory failure, followed by a drug to stop the heart.
However, since the anesthetic has been discontinued, several attempts at lethal injection have
failed. During a recent Oklahoma execution, the prisoner moaned and tried to speak throughout,
and died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the failed injection.
So what’s the least painful way to enforce capital punishment? Science points towards
lethal injections as the best of the worst. But without the necessary drugs, the US may
be forced to decide whether it is willing to continue killing prisoners if the methods
available are inhumane. So are lethal injections really that great,
or do they fall into the “cruel and unusual” category? To learn more about the issue, take
a look at this video we made. To
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