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Last Updated: Monday, 14 January 2008, 12:48 GMT
The search for a 'humane' execution
Lethal injection chamber in Louisiana

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

In the US all executions by lethal injection have been temporarily halted while experts examine whether it is a "humane" form of execution. How does it compare to other forms, and for supporters of capital punishment, is there a more benign method?

The United States is one of 55 countries that practise the death penalty as the ultimate sanction on convicted criminals. But in the majority of US states the procedure is frozen while the Supreme Court decides whether lethal injection is a "cruel and unusual" form of punishment that violates the constitution.

Demonstration of hangman's fracture
The length of hangman's rope depends on weight
For many, the debate has a ring of the absurd. Those opposed in principle to the death penalty believe all its forms are immoral and arguments about methods are irrelevant.

But Michael Portillo, who has voted for and against the death penalty in his time as an MP, says he changed his position because of miscarriages of justice.

For BBC Two's Horizon, he set out to investigate whether one method was any more humane than another, but concluded they were all imperfect:

  • Lethal injection is a combination of three chemical injections - one which makes the inmate unconscious, another that paralyses all muscles except the heart, and a final drug that stops the heart, causing death. But opponents say that if one of the chemicals fails or is badly administered, the prisoner suffers excruciating pain
  • Hanging causes a fracture between the second and third cervical vertebrae, fracturing the joint, tugging the spinal cord, damaging the brain stem and causing the heart to stop. Still common in many parts of the world, to be done properly it requires exact calculations - if the rope is too short, the prisoner may not die instantly; too long and he may be decapitated. The latter seems to have been the case last year in the botched hanging of Saddam Hussein's half-brother
  • Electrocution provides 15 seconds of about 2,450 volts applied to the human body at three points, the head and two calves. A sponge soaked in brine, which is a good conductor, is used on the head. But the voltage may not be sufficient to stop the heart and prisoners sometimes require more than one blast, despite severe damage to internal organs
  • Gas is used in five US states. Cyanide interferes with the human cells' ability to carry oxygen. Scientist Christopher Cooper described the pain as a combination of brain seizure, heart attack and asphyxiation. Prisoners can minimise the pain by breathing deeply, but in practice this is very difficult

Having ruled out all four methods, mainly because there was a risk of pain, Mr Portillo looked at an alternative, the deprivation of oxygen - hypoxia. It's commonly used in the killing of lab animals because it preserves their body tissue.

He discovered that nitrogen could do the job in about 15 seconds, and the prisoner would not feel pain - on the contrary he would feel euphoric, like being drunk.

Michael Portillo
I set out to discover whether science could offer a painless way of killing people and it does
Michael Portillo

While hypoxia might meet the approval of some, others argue that focusing on the dying moments of a prisoner is a distraction to the wider issue - the mental trial of being on death row for months or years.

"No method of execution can prevent the knowledge that you are going to die by the state in the future," says Jon Yorke, a law lecturer who has done extensive death penalty research in the US. "That will have a psychological impact, it can never be humane."

The so-called "death row phenomenon" affects an inmate in two ways, says Mr Yorke. One concerns the mind. In 1986 in Florida, Alvin Ford escaped the death penalty because he had become insane on death row.

The other is the physical impact of the structure in which an inmate is being held. In Oklahoma, where cells on death row are deprived of sunlight, a prisoner may endure 25 years without Vitamin D.

Lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, who has represented death row inmates, agrees and says the mental torture of being on death row is far more horrific than what awaits them at the end.

Hammer killings

But Tom Sorell of the Global Ethics Centre in Birmingham says philosophically speaking, the death penalty can be humane, if it is restricted to very serious crimes and due legal process is followed.

However he admits some of the current methods are unreliable and painful, and suggests that methods used in euthanasia would be more appropriate.

When asked if nitrogen would be a more humane way for the state to kill, the leading voice of the American pro-death penalty movement, Professor Robert Blecker, strongly disagrees.

practised in 36 US states
death by firing squad was banned in Utah in 2004 but four inmates who requested it before then could still get it
in December, New Jersey became the first state to abolish the death penalty since 1976
the UK ended the death penalty in 1965 but surveys suggest many Britons would like it returned
"If the killers who smash their victims on the side of the heads with hammers and then slit their throats go out in a euphoric high, that is not justice."

What makes any method perfect is completely subjective, says Mr Portillo. "For the pro-death penalty lobby, using a painless method of execution is inhumane to the victim of the crime.

"I set out to discover whether science could offer a painless way of killing people and it does.

"And I think that is the right thing to be looking at, because for as long as the state is going to kill people I think it has the obligation to do it in the way that least resembles murder."

Horizon: The Science of Killing is on BBC Two at 2100GMT on Tuesday 15 January

Below is a selection of your comments:

If due process is followed, then it is know HOW the murder was committed. It may not be humane, and does sound like revenge, but I feel a killer should die the same way their victim did. A shooter gets shot, a knife wielder gets stabbed. Brutal? Yes, but it may possibly add value as a deterrent, rather than a nice sleepy euthanasia method.
Craig Elder, Chesterfield

I, as a result of being born into this world and part of the human species, only have the right to life, and, as far as I understand it, only nature and time can take this away. I have never had the right to take any life, nor have I been told I have the right to take a life. So who has been given this right - how were they given this right - who told them they had this right? Isn't this something we should be giving more consideration to before we decide the best way to kill another human 'humanely'?
Seeking Truth, Southampton UK

Is losing their life not punishment enough without making it painful? The quickest method surely is a bullet to the brain.
Heather, Berkshire

Heather, Berkshire: Using a bullet to the brain will cause unnecessary stress to the person who has to pull the trigger - that's why the lethal injection works, you just press a button an a computer randomly selects a batch of injections in which to kill the prisoner with... it helps the people working on death row deal with the death mentally. Read some sources from the war about Nazi soldiers who would go crazy after killing or burying Jews all day and it will offer some insight into that aspect of the job...
Poisoned Pirate, The Flying Fox

If any of the people put to death using any method feel as though they were killed using an inhumane method, they are welcome to come back to life and file a complaint with the appropriate authority. Until they do so, how about using which ever method is cheapest?
Richard, Bath UK

Actually Britain still had the death penalty available for "Arson in Royal Dockyards" and "Piracy with Violence" until 1998
Christopher Jones, London, England

'for as long as the state is going to kill people I think it has the obligation to do it in the way that least resembles murder' If a person was to kill a load of people using a 'humane' method just because they wanted to, would that still not count as murder? Why should it be any different if it is the government that does it?
Mia, Northampton

Robert Blecker clearly does not see any difference between justice and revenge. Most normal people do.
David, Norwich

If someone brutally murders an innocent person then why should we give them the pleasure of dying so peacefully, if you go on death row it's going to hurt when your time is up
Michael Grinter, Radstock


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