America's Long and Grisly Search for the Perfect Way to Kill

Apr 30, 2014

The botched execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett proved once again that there is no reliably non-violent way to snuff out a healthy human life. The modern history of state-sanctioned homicide has been a fruitless quest for an execution method that gets the job done quickly without offending the squeamish.

Lockett was to die Tuesday for the 1999 rape and murder of a teenage girl. According to the Oklahoma execution protocol, after feeling a brief sting as an IV line was inserted into his arm, the inmate would slip into unconsciousness before receiving fatal doses of two other drugs.

Instead, after seeming to fall unconscious, Lockett awoke and began struggling against the restraints on the gurney where he lay. He gasped, muttered, and writhed. It turned out that the IV line was not properly placed in a vein—not an uncommon failure in chemical executions. In Ohio in 2006 and again in 2009, technicians botched lethal injections, and it has happened in a number of other states as well.

Lockett finally died of a heart attack, bringing his gruesome struggle to an end. Many people will note (with justification) that even so, he met a peaceful end compared to the girl he helped to terrorize, brutalize, and bury alive.

But the American death penalty has been characterized by competing impulses: a desire for vengeance, in hopes that the ultimate penalty will express our society’s determination to deter heinous crimes, and a wish to be humane.

It has not always been so. From crucifixion to gibbeting to winding, from burning and stoning to drawing and quartering, execution methods of old were designed to exact maximum suffering. Executions were a form of mass communication: take heed, and don’t end up like this guy. During the French Revolution, the guillotine eliminated the prolonged suffering while continuing to deliver an unmistakable message, but it was a disturbing sight for witnesses upset by blood and gore.

(Read More: Every Execution in U.S. History in a Single Chart)

Hanging—America’s preferred execution method during the first 100 years of the republic—was widely adopted as a more antiseptic approach, one that would not traumatize or debase witnesses. Properly done, the thick hangman’s knot is designed to strike the prisoner’s skull with such force that he is unconscious as his neck snaps and the rope chokes away his life. That’s the idea, anyway.

In fact, so many hangings resulted in decapitation (when the drop was too long) or conscious strangulation (when the drop was too short) that jurisdictions rushed to follow the lead of New York state, which carried out the first electric chair execution in 1890. The great inventor Thomas Edison promoted the lethal power of alternating current in an attempt to discredit his business rival George Westinghouse. (Edison preferred direct current.) Following Edison’s lead, developers of the electric chair compared their execution method to the swift, sure blow of a lightning bolt. The brain would be knocked out by the blast, after which the internal organs would quickly heat up to the failure point.

And sometimes it worked out that way. Often, it did not. Insufficient voltage often left prisoners stunned, but breathing. In even the most peaceful executions, smoke would rise from contact points, while muscles contracted violently and joints fractured. In extreme cases—a Florida electrocution in 1990, for example—the prisoner’s body caught fire.

Another attempt to find the perfect execution technique led to the introduction of the gas chamber in Nevada in 1924. Though California quickly adopted the technology and put it to frequent use, witnesses often described frantic, choking, vomiting prisoners inside the tightly sealed capsules.

Lethal injection was devised as a way to end all that. Prisoners would be “put to sleep” as gently as a kindly veterinarian ends the suffering of an elderly dog. What Lockett’s death showed, however, is that a gentle end requires the participation of a skilled technician or nurse who can reliably install a proper IV line. With leading medical associations opposed on principle to the idea of professional healers taking part in executions, highly skilled individuals are unlikely to participate.

So expect more botched executions. And if history holds true, expect continued experiments in search of a foolproof method. This seesaw story of the American death penalty applies in courtrooms, jury rooms, and execution chambers: the endless search for perfection. Perfect knowledge of guilt, perfect fairness in sentencing, perfect dispatch in execution.

The problem is, nobody’s perfect.

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