Probably the most fascinating and puzzling area is the wide range of capital punishment methods that have been used in the United States, why those methods were created or introduced, and how spectacularly tortuous and torturous those methods have been. Especially when the introduction of each new method was meant to make executions more humane than existing methods; and especially after yesterday's botched execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona.
In colonial times, while there were some executions done in ways that would horrify even the strongest of today's proponents — burning alive, for example, or breaking on the wheel, or "pressing" — the most common method used was hanging, with some executions carried out by firing squad.
Both of these methods can go wrong quite easily. Hanging was originally done with a "short drop" (or even no real "drop" at all), and the condemned would struggle for air and take many minutes to die. Later, the "long drop" method was introduced, the idea being to break the prisoner's neck and cause instant unconsciousness (although actual death would still take 10-15 minutes). However, there are so many variables involved with calculating the correct drop — not just the prisoner's weight, but also their height, and the size and strength of their neck — that there are quite a number of cases where the drop wasn't long enough and the prisoner was cruelly strangled, or where the drop was too long and the prisoner was decapitated.
Using firing squads, or even a single shooter, can be problematic, too. If the prisoner slumps or otherwise moves just before being shot, the bullets will miss their intended target (the heart) and painfully wound the condemned. Yet in a decision a few days ago on Woods' case, U.S. 9th Circuit Court Chief Judge Alex Kozinski cited botched lethal injections earlier this year in Ohio and Oklahoma and recommended a return to firing squads.
Electrocution was introduced in the 1880s with the promise that it would be more humane than hanging. The use of cyanide gas in a gas chamber was similarly hailed in the 1920s as "the most humane manner known to modern science." But neither method results in "instant" death, and even cases where the executions went "according to plan" showed that the condemned often suffered horribly.
Finally, lethal injection was introduced in 1977, with the first such execution occurring in 1982. But in cases ranging from that of Joseph Wood yesterday back to Angel Nieves Diaz in Florida in 2006, there have been mistakes and problems leading to many deaths that must surely meet the 8th Amendment bar of "cruel and unusual".
Is there any way to execute human beings without the risk of torture, mistakes, botches, and gore? British journalist and ex-politician Michael Portillo says "Yes". He was a Member of Parliament between 1984 and 2005, spent some time in the cabinets of Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and is now an active broadcaster on television and radio.
In the 1980s, he supported capital punishment (which had been abolished in Britain, the last hangings there taking place in 1964), but in the 1990s he decided that while capital punishment may be acceptable in principle, the errors and problems and wrongful convictions encountered in practice were not. Nonetheless, he recently put together a one-hour documentary on the BBC show Horizon entitled "How to Kill a Human Being". In the program, first broadcast in 2008, he looks at the primary existing methods of execution — hanging, electrocution, lethal gas, and lethal injection — and concludes that none of them are satisfactory. He actually puts himself through some experiments — some almost lethal — and in the end concludes that the best method of execution would be to use nitrogen gas. Nitrogen is not a poison per se — 80% of our atmosphere is made up of the stuff — but if it displaces all the oxygen in a room, anyone in that room will die rather quickly. If done correctly, it would be quick, inexpensive, not gory at all, and quite humane. In fact, when Portillo came within seconds of death from this method in the show, he was actually euphoric.
I agree with Portillo and many others that our criminal justice systems are still far too imperfect and biased to properly administer such punishments, even as I understand that many Americans aren't fazed at all by Wood's execution yesterday. (I was frankly horrified at the number of blood-thirsty vengeful comments on various news sites and other websites last night.) And I suppose that if the nation really wants vengeful, painful, cruel executions, then the current slate of methods will suffice. But for anyone who wants to minimize the "cruelty" and "unusual nature" of executions, I concur with Mr. Portillo and recommend an airtight chamber (how many old-fashioned gas chambers are left in the US?), a fan pump to remove oxygenated air from the bottom of the chamber, a valve to let pure nitrogen gas into the top of the chamber, and a result that might finally put any debate about "the most humane method" to rest.