We Must Be Better Than Them

imgres*Warning – Graphic Images*

My last post concerned capital punishment and having done some research into the subject, I must admit that I have revised my opinions somewhat.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the use of capital punishment for the most extreme cases, but I have to say that one of my statements is no longer my opinion.  And that is:

… I would gladly flick the switch, pull the trigger or release the Zyklon B.

Having investigated the methods of execution around the world I have come to the conclusion that we must be better than them.

Capital punishment has a long and brutal history and it must be noted that several of them go beyond extreme in terms of cruelty:

– Also known as “the boats” is where the condemned is stripped naked and then fastened securely within the interior space of two narrow rowing boats joined together one on top of the other with the head, hands and feet protruding.

The condemned was forced to drink milk and honey to the point of developing severe diarrhoea, and more honey would be poured on them to attract insects, with special attention paid to the every orifice.

They would then be left to float on a stagnant pond or be exposed to the sun. The defenceless individual’s faeces accumulated within the container, attracting more insects which would eat and breed within the victim’s exposed flesh, which became increasingly gangrenous. The individual would lie naked, covered from head to toe in milk, honey, and their own feces. The feeding would be repeated each day in some cases to prolong the torture, so that fatal dehydration or starvation did not occur. Death, when it eventually occurred, was probably due to a combination of dehydration, starvation, and septic shock. Delirium would typically set in after a few days.

In some cases, bees or wasps would be released in the vicinity to add to the torture.

urlBlood Eagle – Spoken of in Nordic sagas, the Blood Eagle involved cutting the ribs of the victim by the spine, breaking them so they resembled wings, and then pulling the victim’s lungs out through the opening. Salt would then be sprinkled on the wound.

It must be admitted that the historical veracity of this method of execution is still in dispute.


Slow Slicing – A form of torture and execution used in China from approximately AD 900 until it was banned in 1905. In this form of execution, the condemned person was killed by using a knife to methodically remove portions of the body over an extended period of time.

This was regarded as a civilized torture and execution, because the condemned were sometimes given opium as an act of mercy, or to prevent them from fainting.

These are but three of the more brutal methods of legal execution used throughout history.  Other methods were things such as:

  • Crushing – The victim has a board laid on top of them.  Heavy rocks are placed on the board until the condemned is crushed to death.
  • Breaking Wheel – Also known as the Catherine Wheel, the victim would be tied to it and then spun while the executioner delivered bone shattering blows to their body.
  • The Spanish Tickler – Also known as the cat’s paw this device was used by the executioner to rip and tear skin off of the victim. Often death would not occur immediately but rather as a result of infection setting into the wounds.

The above list is far from exhaustive.  A more complete list of execution methods can be found here.

But as these methods are historical and no longer used, they can be discounted from the discussion, I merely included them to illustrate the levels of cruelty that various official bodies have used when dealing with condemned criminals.

Surely the modern methods of execution are more humane and allow the condemned a certain level of mercy and dignity, whether we feel the condemned person deserves it or not.

You would think so.

The list of officially sanctioned methods of execution currently in use around the world are:

  • Lethal Injection
  • Electric Chair
  • Gas Chamber
  • Hanging
  • Firing Squad
  • Beheading
  • Stoning

urlI covered the cruelty involved in beheading in my last post, citing the case of Siti Zainab who required three strikes of the sword to complete the execution and was heard to be pleading for mercy after the second strike.

Also, the hideous brutality of stoning is well known.  The rules for stoning under  the 2008 version of Islamic Penal Code of Iran are as follows:

Article 102 – An adulterous man shall be buried in a ditch up to near his waist and an adulterous woman up to near her chest and then stoned to death.

Article 103 – In case the person sentenced to stoning escapes the ditch in which they are buried, then if the adultery is proven by testimony then they will be returned for the punishment but if it is proven by their own confession then they will not be returned.

Article 104 – The size of the stone used in stoning shall not be too large to kill the convict by one or two throws and at the same time shall not be too small to be called a stone.

stoning-womanStoning is described as a ‘Death by Torture’ and if you look at the results, it is easy to see why!

Quite apart from the fact that stoning is used by Islam for a variety of ridiculous reasons:

  • Adultery.
  • Marrying against one’s family’s wishes.
  • Owning a mobile phone.

Even if the convicted were guilty of an offence that you may think warranted the death sentence, can you truly countenance the sheer brutality of this method of execution?

So I’ve established that the methods used by Islam (that paragon of compassion and tolerance) are both cruel and brutal.  Surely the methods used elsewhere will be more humane.

Well… Not really, no. Each one of them has associated issues.

Firing Squad

BatistaFireSquadThe usual practice is for between 4 and 12 riflemen.  Sometimes they aim at a white square of cloth pinned over the victim’s heart.  Usually there will be an ‘officer’ armed with a pistol in order to apply the Coup de Grace if required.

Multiple riflemen are used in order to make it impossible to know which one of them fired the fatal shot… If they did.  Should the victim still be alive and probably in great pain, the only thing they have to look forward to is a pistol shot to the head.

180px-AhadbeforeQuite apart from the fact that any form of execution that carries the possibility that a Coup de Grace may be required is clearly less than ideal.  The fact is that even the head shot may not kill the condemned and a second shot could be required.

The fact is, the human body can survive some hideous wounds, an example is a young man named Ahad Israfil. Admittedly, he was not a condemned man, but he is an example of how much damage the human body can absorb and still survive.

Sorry, but the firing squad is simply not an acceptable form of execution!

Gas Chamber

The following is extracted from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/:

In 1924, the use of cyanide gas was introduced as Nevada sought a more humane way of executing its inmates. Gee Jon was the first person executed by lethal gas. The state tried to pump cyanide gas into Jon’s cell while he slept. This proved impossible because the gas leaked from his cell, so the gas chamber was constructed. (Bohm, 1999)

Today, five states authorize lethal gas as a method of execution, but all have lethal injection as an alternative method. A federal court in California found this method to be cruel and unusual punishment. For execution by this method, the condemned person is strapped to a chair in an airtight chamber. Below the chair rests a pail of sulfuric acid. A long stethoscope is typically affixed to the inmate so that a doctor outside the chamber can pronounce death. Once everyone has left the chamber, the room is sealed. The warden then gives a signal to the executioner who flicks a lever that releases crystals of sodium cyanide into the pail. This causes a chemical reaction that releases hydrogen cyanide gas. (Weisberg, 1991)

The prisoner is instructed to breathe deeply to speed up the process. Most prisoners, however, try to hold their breath, and some struggle. The inmate does not lose consciousness immediately. According to former San Quenton, California, Penitentiary warden, Clifton Duffy, “At first there is evidence of extreme horror, pain, and strangling. The eyes pop. The skin turns purple and the victim begins to drool.” (Weisberg, 1991) Caryl Chessman, before he died in California’s gas chamber in 1960 told reporters that he would nod his head if it hurt. Witnesses said he nodded his head for several minutes. (Ecenbarger, 1994)

According to Dr. Richard Traystman of John Hopkins University School of Medicine, “The person is unquestionably experiencing pain and extreme anxiety…The sensation is similar to the pain felt by a person during a heart attack, where essentially the heart is being deprived of oxygen.” The inmate dies from hypoxia, the cutting-off of oxygen to the brain. (Weisberg, 1991) At postmortem, an exhaust fan sucks the poison air out of the chamber, and the corpse is sprayed with ammonia to neutralize any remaining traces of cyanide. About a half an hour later, oderlies enter the chamber, wearing gas masks and rubber gloves. Their training manual advises them to ruffle the victim’s hair to release any trapped cyanide gas before removing the deceased. (Weisberg, 1991)

As of April 17, 2015, Oklahoma introduced death by nitrogen gas as an alternative to lethal injection if the necessary drugs cannot be found or if that method is found unconstitutional. Nitrogen is a naturally occurring gas in the atmosphere, and death would be caused by forcing the inmate to breathe only nitrogen, thereby depriving him or her of oxygen.

Problems with this method are clear and there are several instances of botched executions:

In 1983, Officials had to clear the room eight minutes after the gas was released when Jimmy Lee Gray’s desperate gasps for air alarmed the official witnesses. Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while the reporters counted his moans Later it was revealed that the executioner, Barry Bruce, was drunk.


Donald Eugene Harding entered the gas chamber in 1992. Death was not pronounced until 10 1/2 minutes after the cyanide tablets were dropped.During the execution, Harding thrashed and struggled violently against the restraining straps and his spasms and jerks lasted over 6 minutes. A witness, newspaper reporter Carla McClain, said, “Harding’s death was extremely violent. He was in great pain. I heard him gasp and moan. I saw his body turn from red to purple.”One reporter who witnessed the execution suffered from insomnia and assorted illnesses for several weeks; two others were “walking vegetables” for several days.

So clearly the gas chamber is less than suitable for ending a human life in any officially sanctioned manner.

Electric Chair

Again, I quote deathpenaltyinfo.org:

Seeking a more humane method of execution than hanging, New York built the first electric chair in 1888 and executed William Kemmler in 1890. Soon, other states adopted this execution method. Today, electrocution is not used as the sole method of execution in any state.

Electrocution was the sole method in Nebraska until the State Supreme Court ruled the method unconstitutional in February 2008. For execution by the electric chair, the person is usually shaved and strapped to a chair with belts that cross his chest, groin, legs, and arms. A metal skullcap-shaped electrode is attached to the scalp and forehead over a sponge moistened with saline.

The sponge must not be too wet or the saline short-circuits the electric current, and not too dry, as it would then have a very high resistance. An additional electrode is moistened with conductive jelly (Electro-Creme) and attached to a portion of the prisoner’s leg that has been shaved to reduce resistance to electricity. The prisoner is then blindfolded. (Hillman, 1992 and Weisberg, 1991)

After the execution team has withdrawn to the observation room, the warden signals the executioner, who pulls a handle to connect the power supply. A jolt of between 500 and 2000 volts, which lasts for about 30 seconds, is given. The current surges and is then turned off, at which time the body is seen to relax.

The doctors wait a few seconds for the body to cool down and then check to see if the inmate’s heart is still beating. If it is, another jolt is applied. This process continues until the prisoner is dead.

The prisoner’s hands often grip the chair and there may be violent movement of the limbs which can result in dislocation or fractures. The tissues swell. Defecation occurs. Steam or smoke rises and there is a smell of burning. (Hillman, 1992 and Weisberg, 1991) U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once offered the following description of an execution by electric chair:

…the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on [his] cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner’s flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches fire….Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber. (Ecenbarger, 1994)

At post mortem, the body is hot enough to blister if touched, and the autopsy is delayed while the internal organs cool. There are third degree burns with blackening where the electrodes met the skin of the scalp and legs. According to Robert H. Kirschner, the deputy chief medical examiner of Cook County, “The brain appears cooked in most cases.” (Weisberg, 1991)

Below is a link to a video excerpt from a 1977 documentary called This Is America showing an execution by electric chair:

As you can see (if you watched it), it does not appear to be a humane way to die.

There have been several botched electrocutions and issues have included such things as:

  • The condemned catching fire whilst still alive.
  • Taking upwards of 17 minutes to die in extreme pain.
  • Broken bones and snapped tendons as the still-living body goes into spasm.
  • Eyeballs exploding during the electrocution.

I am sorry, but I just cannot allow that this could possibly be considered an acceptable way to legally take a life, regardless of crimes committed by the individual.


imagesFor execution by this method, the inmate may be weighed the day before the execution, and a rehearsal is done using a sandbag of the same weight as the prisoner. This is to determine the length of ‘drop’ necessary to ensure a quick death.

The rope, which should be 3/4-inch to 1 1/4-inch in diameter, must be boiled and stretched to eliminate spring or coiling. The knot should be lubricated with wax or soap to ensure a smooth sliding action.

Immediately before the execution, the prisoner’s hands and legs are secured, he or she is blindfolded, and the noose is placed around the neck, with the knot behind the left ear. The execution takes place when a trap-door is opened and the prisoner falls through. The prisoner’s weight should cause a rapid fracture-dislocation of the neck.

Again, another method of execution that is supposed to ensure an instant death with a minimum of suffering, however:

  • If the rope is too long, the inmate could be decapitated, and if it is too short, the strangulation could take as long as 45 minutes.
  • Instantaneous death rarely occurs.
  • If the condemned has strong neck muscles, is very light, if the ‘drop’ is too short, or the noose has been wrongly positioned, the fracture-dislocation is not rapid and death results from slow asphyxiation. If this occurs the face becomes engorged, the tongue protrudes, the eyes pop, the body defecates, and violent movements of the limbs occur.

Lethal Injection

imagesI covered the method of lethal injection in my last post.  Suffice to say it too is not without its problems.

  • Stephen Peter Morin had a history of drug abuse, so the execution technicians were forced to probe both of Morin’s arms and one of his legs with needles for nearly 45 minutes before they found a suitable vein.
  • Elliot Rod Johnson. Because of collapsed veins, it took nearly an hour to complete the execution.
  • Stephen McCoy had such a violent physical reaction to the drugs (heaving chest, gasping, choking, back arching off the gurney, etc.) that one of the witnesses (male) fainted, crashing into and knocking over another witness. Houston attorney Karen Zellars, who represented McCoy and witnessed the execution, thought the fainting would catalyze a chain reaction. The Texas Attorney General admitted the inmate “seemed to have a somewhat stronger reaction,” adding “The drugs might have been administered in a heavier dose or more rapidly.
  • Rickey Ray Rector. It took medical staff more than 50 minutes to find a suitable vein in Rector’s arm. Witnesses were kept behind a drawn curtain and not permitted to view this scene, but reported hearing Rector’s eight loud moans throughout the process. During the ordeal Rector (who suffered from serious brain damage) helped the medical personnel find a vein. The administrator of State’s Department of Corrections medical programs said (paraphrased by a newspaper reporter) “the moans did come as a team of two medical people that had grown to five worked on both sides of his body to find a vein.” The administrator said “That may have contributed to his occasional outbursts.” The difficulty in finding a suitable vein was later attributed to Rector’s bulk and his regular use of antipsychotic medication

So, what is the solution?

In my opinion, if the death penalty is to be used, we should consider the lethal injection.  But not the one that is currently in use.  Perhaps it would be better to use the same method used by the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.

They administer an anti-emetic to combat nausea and this is followed by a heavy dose of Pentobarbitol, causing the person to become drowsy and fall asleep within 5 minutes of drinking it. Anaesthesia progresses to coma as the person’s breathing becomes more shallow, followed by respiratory arrest and death, which occurs within 30 minutes of ingesting the Pentobarbital.

In 100% of cases it has been found to be a peaceful and humane way to end a human life.

A similar drug is used to euthenise household pets in a similar fashion. And if we can offer a dog a painless and peaceful end, surely we can do the same for humans.

My view is that regardless of the severity of the crime committed by the condemned, any society that employs the death penalty should show mercy and humanity in legally ending a life, regardless of whether the individual concerned showed any mercy or humanity to his or her victims.

In short…

We Must Be Better Than Them

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