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Is humane execution really possible?

Yakub Memon’s hanging once again put the spotlight on whether death penalty should be abolished and, if not, whether it can be made more humane. Globally, a wide range of methods of state execution are used — hanging, decapitation, firing squad, lethal injection, stoning — with hanging being the most common and used in 60 countries.

columns Updated: Aug 07, 2015 14:23 IST
Representative picture. (Illustration: Abhimanyu)
Representative picture. (Illustration: Abhimanyu)

Yakub Memon’s hanging once again put the spotlight on whether death penalty should be abolished and, if not, whether it can be made more humane. Globally, a wide range of methods of state execution are used — hanging, decapitation, firing squad, lethal injection, stoning — with hanging being the most common and used in 60 countries.

Electrocution, gas chambers and ‘pushing off a great height’, the last being only used in Iran, are the least used. Since most methods of state executions are chosen for historic and cultural reasons, here’s a review of what science has to say on death without discomfort.

Lynching is far more complicated than spaghetti Westerns would have us believe. India’s official method of execution is largely dependent on the hangman’s skill, which involves complicated calculations that factor in the prisoner’s weight and the length, thickness and quality of the rope. Executioners use the ‘long-drop’ method of hanging that causes almost instantaneous death from ‘hangman’s fracture’, a colloquial term for traumatic spondylolisthesis of axis vertebrae, which snaps the C2 vertebrae in the neck.

The preparation for the hanging must be exhaustive, as any miscalculation in the length of the drop can rip the prisoner’s head clean off. The prisoner is weighed the day before the hanging and a rehearsal is done using a sandbag of the same weight, to ensure a quick death. Too short drop would not break the neck at all, and would result instead in death by strangulation, which can take several minutes. In almost all cases, however, asphyxiation from the pressure of the rope on the windpipe and the blood vessels that feed the brain results in the prisoner losing consciousness within 10 seconds of being hanged.

Lethal injection was adopted in the US in 1977 as a humane alternative to the electric chair, with three drugs being used, the anaesthetic sodium thiopental, to numb the prisoner, followed by pancuronium, to paralyse the lungs and stop breathing, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.

Several states were forced to consider other forms of execution after the botched execution of Clayton D Lockett last year, who writhed in pain for 43 minutes before his heart finally stopped. One identifiable reason why Lockett was in pain for so long was that he was administered the sedative midazolam instead of sodium thiopental, the latter being unavailable because of bans on the export of lethal drugs among European countries opposed to the death penalty.

Accidental electrocutions at home involving low voltage usually cause death from the heart stopping (arrhythmia), with a person losing consciousness within 10 seconds. The electric chair was designed to make the brain and heart stop instantly, by conducting a high-voltage currents directly through the person. But there have been several cases of the prisoner taking more than a few minutes to lose consciousness. In one case, the synthetic sponge attached to the electrodes was such a bad conductor that it went up in flames and the prisoner’s head caught fire. Most visible burns in such executions, however, are on the head and legs, where the electrodes are attached, and occur after death. If the voltage is insufficient, the prisoner is likely to die of the brain overheating, or of suffocation from the paralysis of the lung muscles.

Beheading is a gruesome way to be killed. If the executioner is skilled and has a sharp blade — like Ilyn Payne or The Hound from Game of Thrones — it is among the least painful ways to die. When the infamous guillotine, designed by the French physician Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin, to make beheadings painless and error-free, was first officially used for public execution in France in 1792, the crowd baying for blood were reportedly disappointed by the speed of death.

A study of rats in 1991 found it takes 2.7 seconds for the brain to use up all the oxygen in the blood in the head, which is the duration of the consciousness of pain. In humans, it is about 7 seconds. In the absence of the guillotine, the skill of the beheader comes into play. In 1587, a clumsy executioner could not behead Mary Queen of Scots in three attempts and finally used a knife to finish the job.

A shortage of drugs for lethal injection last year prompted several death-penalty states in the US to look for alternatives, and Oklahoma zeroed in on nitrogen gas asphyxiation as the most painless way to die. Nitrogen gas causes asphyxiation by depleting oxygen in the blood. Though this inert gas is yet to be put to test as a method of capital punishment, accidental inhalation does not cause any symptoms and people do not experience the suffocation associated with carbon monoxide poisoning or the hydrogen cyanide used in gas chambers. Deep-sea divers exposed to nitrogen gas report feeling mildly euphoric — called the ‘raptures of the sea’ or the ‘Martini effect’ — because of narcosis triggered by the anaesthetic effect of the inert gas at high pressure.

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