How Capital Punishment Works In The United States

One would define capital punishment as the penalty of death for violating a law. Roughly half the nations of the world utilize the death penalty, while the rest eliminated its use. The United States, an industrialized nation, breaks the pattern that only developing countries retain capital punishment (“Capital” Encarta 1). The United States uses five techniques for execution: hanging, firing squad, lethal gas, electrocution, and lethal injection (Snell 16). Of these methods, each result in death for the prisoner in distinct ways. Before hanging, application of a measuring process, based on weight, yields 1260 foot- pounds of force to the condemned person’s neck (Bobit 5). Blindfolded (McCuen 19), the convict stands with a noosed rope or cord (“Hanging” Encarta 1) around their neck, behind the left ear (Bobit 5). Positioned upon a trap door (McCuen 19) of a gallows, a frame with a crosspiece, the criminal anticipates the sudden drop.

Death can result from compression of the windpipe, obstruction of blood flow, rupture of nerve structures in the neck (“Hanging” Encarta 1), severing of the spinal cord from the brain by dislocating the third and fourth cervical vertebrae, or by asphyxiation. But if not properly performed, strangulation, obstructed blood flow, or even beheading could occur (Bobit 5). In the United States, only three executions by this manner took place, as of 1996, since 1977 (Snell 16). From 1977 to 1996, the firing squad killed two prisoners (Snell 16). If shot at the head from close range, death occurs almost immediately, for “the bullet penetrates the medulla, which contains the vital respirator and cardiac centers, among others” (McCuen 20). Generally, a team of five executioners take aim at the captive’s chest. Some rifles contain a blank so they don’t know who really killed the convict (Bobit 4).

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With the several shots fired at once, death comes abruptly. Known as cavitation, the heat released from the bullets evaporate tissues and water in the body, leaving a large empty space. “When the bullet has passed through, the cavity collapses, and sucks in dead tissue and contaminated air” (McCuen 21). Since 1924, when first used in Nevada, execution of thirty one convicts by the means of lethal gas occurred (Bobit 3). Strapping the prisoner into a chair inside an airtight chamber takes place first. Then, by pressing a lever outside, either sulfuric (McCuen 24) or hydrochloric acid flows into a pan. Upon pressing another lever, either potassium cyanide or sodium cyanide crystals fall into the acid. This mixture creates poisonous fumes, which end life within six to eighteen minutes (Bobit 3). If the prisoner takes deep breaths, death advances briskly and with little suffering (“Gas” Britannica 1). But if the captive resists breathing, life prolongs painfully until death finally arrives, and probably after going into “wild convulsions” (Bobit 3).

Before electrocution, the convicts head, as well as the rest of their body, needs to be shaved for improved contact with the moistened copper electrodes (Bobit 2). One terminal attaches to the calf and the other around the head (McCuen 22). After strapping the prisoner in, ordinarily three executioners push buttons, with only one connected, so they don’t know who killed the man. Depending on the person’s weight (Bobit 2), 500 to 2000 volts run through the body (McCuen 22) for so many seconds at a time, until the prisoner dies. While electrocuted, many effects on the body appear. The convict usually “leaps forward against the restraints,” then the body changes color, swells, and sometimes even catches on fire. Defecation, urination, and vomiting blood may take place as well (Bobit 2).

The electric chair killed 128 prisoners since 1977, as of 1996 (Snell 16). The most frequently used process of execution in the United States, lethal injection, killed 406 people since 1976. After strapped to a gurney, two intravenous lines attach in the arms. The use of three chemicals contribute to the execution: first Sodium Thiopentat causes a deep sleep, then Pancuronium Bromide relaxes the muscles, which also paralyses the diaphragm and lungs to end breathing, and finally Potassium Chloride to stop the heart (Bobit 1). These five methods of execution used in the United States, hanging, shooting, gas chamber, electric chair, and lethal injection, resulted in 358 deaths within only nineteen years (Snell 16). As explained, they each end life in different ways, whether severing the brain from the spine (Bobit 5) or burning the internal organs (Bobit 2). So, if your gonna’ play, your gonna’ pay: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life.


Bobit, Bonnie. Death Row. 1999. . “Capital Punishment.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 2000. “Gas Chamber.” Encyclopdia Britannica. 2000. “Hanging.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 2000. McCuen, Gary E., and R.A. Baumgart. Reviving the Death Penalty. Hudson, WI: Gary E. McCuen Publications, Inc., 1985. Snell, Tracy L. Capital Punishment 1996. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1996.Words / Pages : 717 / 24


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