Merciful (but messy) alternatives to lethal injection.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 5 2006 3:39 PM

Take My Life, Please

Merciful (but messy) alternatives to lethal injection.

As the debate over the constitutionality of death by lethal injection made its way to the Supreme Court in last month's case of Hill v. McDonough, Florida's attorney general proposed a novel way to settle the issue: In a brief submitted to the court last January, prosecutors responded to convicted murderer Clarence Hill's claim that the state's current lethal-injection protocol will subject him to "excruciating pain before death" by suggesting that the condemned come up with a better idea himself. When the issue was raised during oral argument, Justice Stephen Breyer quipped that Hill might as well simply suggest "old age."

Certainly if you consider the history of execution methods, or the way capital punishment is meted out around the world, lethal injection actually looks like a fairly kind method. Nonetheless, Hill may still have some preferable alternatives if he looks at the matter from his perspective, rather than worrying about the sensibilities of his witnesses.

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Start with the odd veterinary analogy: As Justice John Paul Stevens suggested at oral argument in Hill, if a Miami vet put a dog to sleep using Florida's current execution protocol, they would be violating the state's animal-cruelty laws. So, rather than tinkering with a method that doesn't even meet "minimum veterinary standards" for euthanizing pets, why not consider a USDA-approved method for slaughtering cattle? One of the most common techniques currently in use is "captive bolt stunning," which "induces instant insensibility by both concussion and physical destruction of the brain."

An early attempt at ensuring a merciful death—the garrote—used a similar mechanism. During the Spanish Inquisition, the garrote was reserved for heretics who converted to Christianity after being condemned to death. Rather than burning alive with the unrepentant, they were mercifully strangled with a sharp cord. While this is "humane" only in comparison to purification by fire, a later version of the same concept, consisting of aniron collar with a large metal screw in the back, was supposed to cause immediate death. The theory behind the garrote was that when the screw was tightened, it would crush the brain stem and kill the inmate instantly. However, if the screw missed the precise point where the brain meets the spinal column, it would simply bore into the inmate's neck while the iron collar strangled him.

In contrast to this unreliable contraption, Dr. Joseph Guillotin's "simple mechanism" for decapitation always worked as intended. The prisoner facing the guillotine was placed facedown on a large wooden plank, their head secured in a brace and steadied by an executioner's assistant known as "the Photographer," who held onto their hair (or, in the case of bald prisoners, their ears). When everything was in place, a 120-pound blade was dropped from 7 feet in the air, immediately severing the prisoner's head.

The guillotine was extremely bloody, but, unlike the garrote—or modern lethal injections—it never missed.

There is, however, still some debate over whether inmates retain consciousness after being decapitated. After witnessing the execution of Henri Languille in 1905, one Dr. Beaurieux was certain they did. Several seconds after the blade dropped, Dr. Beaurieux tested his theory by calling out "Languille!" in a "strong, sharp voice."

I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions ... but with an even movement. ... Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me.

With stories like these, it's hard to ignore the possibility that inmates may briefly survive a beheading. A perfect method should leave no room for doubt.

European nations aren't much help here. They continued to use the garrote and guillotine well into the 1970s, and—with execution rates steadily dropping until the E.U. abolished capital punishment altogether in 1983—they had little incentive to update their methods. For a more modern approach, then, we should turn to the current execution capital of the world: China. According to Amnesty International, at least 1,770 executions took place in China last year, (nearly 80 percent of the worldwide total for 2005), though the actual number may be closer to 8,000. Whatever the exact figure, the vast majority of today's executions occur in the People's Republic, and the majority of these executions are carried out with firearms.