Execution procedure

Execution methods in the USA

The most common execution method in the U.S. is lethal injection, which Texas first used to execute in 1982. Until 2008, the state of Nebraska was the last to have a different method of execution with the electric chair. This was declared unconstitutional, so the state also adopted lethal injection as its execution method beginning in 2009.

Thus, lethal injection is the designated method of execution in all U.S. states that have the death penalty. In individual U.S. states, however, the electric chair, gas chamber, firing squad, or hanging could be reinstated should lethal injection ever be declared unconstitutional. In some cases, there is a choice for those to be executed (e.g., between “chemical lethal injection” and “gas lethal injection”), and in rare cases, condemned persons choose the method previously provided for in the respective state.

The individual execution methods in detail:

In the execution by lethal injection, in the classical variant, three intravenous injections are administered in succession, consisting of the barbiturate sodium thiopental (anesthetic used to achieve unconsciousness), pancuronium bromide as a muscle relaxant (paralyzing the muscles and thus also breathing), and potassium chloride, which causes depolarization of the heart (cardiac arrest). For several years, there have been supply shortages as far as the drugs are concerned, so some states have switched to pentobarbital as the sole agent or have tried other combinations.

Saline is injected before the execution begins and between the administration of each chemical to prevent the chemicals from reacting with each other.

Some states inject an antihistamine in advance of the execution to avoid an allergic reaction to the chemicals.

A number of physicians have already expressed concerns that the drugs may not work properly if the individual is diabetic or has used drugs and his or her veins are difficult to find. If a convict has a previous drug career, the barbiturate may also work too weakly and the subsequent killing may be very painful for the prisoner.

Electrodes are attached to the prisoner’s head and legs. When the power is switched on, the condemned’s body shoots forward against the leather straps that bind him to the chair.

Execution in the electric chair (electrocution), in which between 500 and 2000 volts are sent through the condemned man’s body, has visible destructive effects.

Internal organs and tissues are burned. The prisoner’s bowels may empty, he may urinate or vomit blood. The body changes color, flesh swells, and skin and hair may catch fire.

The body temperature rises up to 60° C, and in order to determine whether death has occurred, the condemned person’s body must first cool down.

Witnesses always report that there is an odor of burnt flesh.

It is not known how long people in the electric chair remain conscious. So the execution method could be very painful for the condemned.

The condemned person is locked in a hermetically sealed steel chamber. At a signal from the executioner, a valve opens, from which hydrochloric acid flows into a trough located under the prisoner’s seat. After another signal, about 230 grams of cyanide crystals or capsules fall into the acid. The resulting hydrogen cyanide gas, which is lighter than air and rises slowly, prevents the formation of hemoglobin in the blood. Respiratory paralysis is the result.

This execution method requires cooperation from the condemned to reduce the agony. He must take deep breaths to achieve rapid unconsciousness. If he holds his breath repeatedly, the agony lasts several minutes.

After the prisoner is pronounced dead, filters clean the steel chamber of gas residue. Under gas masks, a team detoxifies the dead body with a bleach solution and degasses it. If this were not done, an unsuspecting mortician could also be killed.

The hydrogen cyanide gas used for execution is identical to Zyklon-B, which was used to kill in concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Before execution, the condemned is weighed. The ‘fall’ depends on his weight to apply 1,260 foot-pounds to the neck. This ensures near instantaneous death and minimum bruising, and eliminates strangulation (slow suffocation) or decapitation.

If hanging is performed properly, forcible separation of the third or fourth cervical vertebra causes death.

However, if the fall into the noose is too short, the hanged person dies a slow and agonizing death by suffocation; if it is too long, the head is severed.

Usually the coil of the rope is placed behind the left ear of the convict so that the neck will bend to the side after falling.

There is no protocol about the procedure.

According to information, the execution team consists of 5 people. The convict is tied to a chair and covered with a hood. A target is fixed on his chest. One of the firearms reportedly contains a blank cartridge so that none of the shooters know who is firing a fatal shot.

Since the death penalty was reinstated, three people have been executed this way, Gary Gilmore in 1977 and John Taylor in 1996, Taylor posing a problem for the state of Utah, which feared negative publicity for the upcoming Olympics. In 2010, Ronnie Gardner chose the firing squad for his execution.

This method of execution poses major problems, as there is a risk that members of the execution team may deliberately shoot past so as not to be at fault for the death of the condemned man.

Witness reports on executions

Death House

Witness to an execution: Gabi Uhl

Witness to an Execution – Rick Halperin

Execution Day
by Susanne Cardona