The recent botched execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma raises a point that I often discuss with my Torts students. The evolution of capital punishment is largely a futile search for a humane way of killing people. I say futile because every execution method can go wrong or become stigmatized in a serious way.
Back in the day, executions were supposed to be horrible. (Consider the Cross, burning at the stake, boiling in oil, drawing and quartering, etc.) Once people decided that this was torture, then society moved through different options, each of which was considered as a progressive or liberal improvement at the time.
1. Beheading: The condemned does not see the ax falling on his head, and it was all over after one blow. Except when it took several blows because the executioner was a klutz. That was then a really painful death.
2. Hanging: No need to cut anything or shed blood. Except if the rope was too short (then the head got ripped off). Or if the rope was too long, people took a long time to die in agony.
3. Firing Squad: The condemned can wear a blindfold and it should be over quickly. Unless the firing squad does a poor job.
4. The Guillotine: This was a big improvement over an ax. It makes far fewer mistakes and is relatively painless. Once it got associated with the Terror of the French Revolution, though, that was off the table.
5. The Electric Chair: When it was introduced, “Old Sparky” was supposed to be a great improvement. After all, it was a machine and did not involve cutting. Except when the voltage was too high and burned people, or too low and didn’t kill.
6. The Gas Chamber: Hitler’s Germany made this technique impossible to use again.
7. Lethal Injection: That was supposed to be painless and foolproof. Except when the IV is not done correctly or the chemicals are administered in the wrong proportions.