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Methods of Execution

Five different methods of execution are prescribed in the states that currently enforce the death penalty: lethal injection, electrocution, lethal gas, firing squad, and hanging. While the majority of these states provide for execution by lethal injection, some states provide for alternative methods which are dependent upon the choice of the inmate, the date of the execution or sentence, or the possibility of the method being held unconstitutional. Nebraska is the only state that provides for electrocution as the sole method of execution. No states provide for lethal gas, hanging, or firing squad as the sole method of execution.

Lethal Injection


Although there is minor procedural variation on a state-by-state basis for the administration of a lethal injection, the procedure is generally uniform. When this method is used, the inmate is usually bound to a gurney and a member of the execution team positions several heart monitors on his or her skin. Two needles are inserted into the inmate's veins, usually in the inmate's arms. Long tubes connect the needles through a hole in a cement block wall to several intravenous drips, and a flow of normal saline solution is administered at a slow rate. At the warden's signal, a curtain is raised exposing the inmate to the witnesses in the observation room. The inmate is then injected with 5.0 grams of sodium thiopental or sodium pentothal - an anesthetic, which renders the inmate unconscious. The line is flushed with sterile normal saline solution. This is followed with 50 cc of pancuronium bromide, a saline flush, and finally, 50 cc of potassium chloride. The pancuronium bromide is a muscle relaxant that paralyzes the diaphragm and lungs. The flow of potassium chloride causes cardiac arrest. Death results from anesthetic overdose and respiratory and cardiac arrest while the inmate is unconscious.

Although a doctor may certify that the inmate is dead, medical ethics preclude doctors from participating in the actual execution. This can be problematic because inexperienced technicians or orderlies often perform the injections. If they happen to inject the drugs into a muscle instead of a vein, or if the needle becomes clogged, extreme pain can result. Furthermore, many inmates have damaged veins resulting from intravenous drug use, making it sometimes difficult to find a usable vein, which results in long delays while the inmate remains strapped to the gurney. (Some states allow for a Thorazine or sedative injection to facilitate IV insertion.)


Lethal injection was first proposed as a means of execution in 1888 when New York considered it but then opted for electrocution instead. In 1977, Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal injection. Texas performed the first execution by lethal injection with the execution of Charlie Brooks on December 2, 1982.

Current Application:

Today, 37 states as well as the US military and the federal government use this method. 19 states and the federal government authorize lethal injection as the sole method of execution. The other states provide for lethal injection as the primary method of execution, but provide alternative methods depending upon the choice of the inmate, the date of the execution or sentence, or the possibility of the method being held unconstitutional.


The Procedure:

Although there is minor variation on a state-by-state basis for the electrocution of an inmate, the procedure is generally uniform. The person's body is shaved (in order to reduce resistance to electricity) and placed into the electric chair, which usually is constructed of oak and is set on a rubber matting and bolted to a concrete floor. The person is strapped to the chair with belts across the lap, chest, legs and arms. A metal skullcap-shaped electrode is attached to the scalp and forehead over a sponge moistened with saline. An additional electrode is moistened with conductive jelly (Electro-Creme) and attached to a portion of the inmate's leg. He or she is then blindfolded.

After the execution team has withdrawn to the observation room, the warden orders the executioner to electrocute the inmate. The executioner flips a switch that introduces an automatic cycle of electricity into the inmate's body via the electrodes. The cycle usually begins with a programmed 2,300 volts (9.5 amps) for eight seconds, followed by 1,000 volts (4 amps) for 22 seconds, followed by 2,300 volts (9.5 amps) for eight seconds. When the cycle is complete, the equipment is disconnected. If the inmate is not pronounced dead, the execution cycle is repeated. The process continues until the inmate is dead.

The inmate's hands often grip the chair and there may be violent movement of the limbs, which can result in dislocation or fractures. Defecation occurs, steam or smoke rises, and there are burns of varying degrees to the body of the inmate.


Seeking a more humane method of execution than hanging, New York built the first electric chair in 1888 and executed William Kemmler in 1890. Soon, other states adopted this execution method, and from 1930-1980 it became the most common method of execution in the United States.

Current Application:

Today, electrocution is used as the sole method of execution only in Nebraska. 9 other states provide for electrocution as an alternative method, depending on the choice of the inmate, the date of the execution or sentence, or the possibility of the method being held unconstitutional.

Lethal Gas


The execution protocol for most jurisdictions authorizes the use of a steel airtight execution chamber, equipped with a chair and attached restraints. The inmate is restrained at his or her chest, waist, arms, and ankles, and wears a mask during the execution. The chair is equipped with a metal container beneath the seat. Cyanide pellets are placed in this container. A metal canister is on the floor under the container filled with a sulfuric acid solution. Once the execution team has left the chamber, the room is sealed, and the warden signals the executioner to flick a lever which causes the bottom of the cyanide container to open allowing the cyanide to fall into the sulfuric acid solution, producing a lethal gas. Unconsciousness can occur within a few seconds if the prisoner takes a deep breath. However, if he or she holds their breath death can take much longer, and the prisoner will go into wild convulsions. Ultimately the inmate dies from hypoxia, the cutting-off of oxygen to the brain. A heart monitor attached to the inmate is read in the observation room, and after the warden pronounces the inmate dead, ammonia is pumped into the execution chamber to neutralize the gas. Exhaust fans then remove the fumes from the chamber into two scrubbers that contain water and serve as a neutralizing agent. The neutralizing process takes approximately 30 minutes from the time the inmate's death is determined. Death is estimated to usually occur within 6 to 18 minutes of the lethal gas emissions.

The most common problems encountered are the agony suffered by the inmate as well as the length of time to cause death.


The use of a gas chamber for execution was inspired by, among other things, the use of poisonous gas in World War I. Nevada became the first state to adopt (and carry out) execution by lethal gas in 1924. Lethal gas was seen as an improvement over other forms of execution, because it was less violent and did not disfigure or mutilate the body. The last execution by lethal gas took place in Arizona in 1999.

Current Application:

Only five states, Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri, and Wyoming, currently authorize lethal gas as a method of execution, all as an alternative to lethal injection, depending upon the choice of the inmate, the date of the execution or sentence, or the possibility of lethal injection being held unconstitutional.

Firing Squad


The traditional firing squad is made up of three to six shooters per inmate who stand or kneel opposite the inmate who is usually tied to a chair or to a stake. On the command to fire, the squad fires simultaneously. One squad member is given blank rounds but no member knows which member is designated to receive these rounds. Normally the shooters aim at the chest of the inmate, causing rupture of the heart, great vessels, and lungs so that the inmate dies of hemorrhage and shock. It is not unusual for the officer in charge to have to give the inmate a final shot to the head if the initial volley has failed to kill them.

History & Current Application:

Although the method was popular with the military in times of war, today only three states, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Utah authorize shooting as a method of execution. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty only two inmates have chosen the firing squad as their method of execution. Gary Gilmore (the first inmate executed in the United States since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976) was executed on January 17, 1977 and John Taylor was executed on January 27, 1996 (both in Utah).



Prior to execution by hanging, the rope, which is of manila hemp, is soaked and then stretched while drying in order to eliminate any spring, stiffness, or tendency to coil. The hangman's knot, which is tied pursuant to military regulations, is treated with wax, soap, or clear oil, to ensure that the rope slides smoothly through the knot. The end of the rope that does not contain the noose is tied to a grommet in the ceiling and then is tied off to a metal T-shaped bracket, which takes the force delivered by the prisoner's drop.

The inmate, in restraints, is escorted to the gallows area and is placed standing over a hinged trap door from which he or she will be dropped. A determination of the proper amount of the drop of the prisoner through the trap door is calculated using a standard military execution chart for hanging. The "drop" must be based on the prisoner's weight, to deliver 1260 foot-pounds of force to the neck. The noose is placed around the prisoner's neck, behind his or her left ear. The execution takes place when the trap door is opened and the prisoner falls through. The prisoner's weight should cause a rapid fracture-dislocation of the neck. However, instantaneous death rarely occurs. If the inmate has strong neck muscles, is very light, if the 'drop' is too short, or the noose has been wrongly positioned, the fracture-dislocation is not rapid and death results from slow asphyxiation. If this occurs the face becomes engorged, the tongue protrudes, the eyes pop, the body defecates, and violent movements of the limbs occur.


Hanging is the oldest method of execution in the United States, however it fell into disfavor in the 20th century after many botched attempts, and was replaced by electrocution as the most common method. There have been 3 executions by hanging since 1977: Westley Dodd (WA 1993), Charles Campbell (WA 1994), and Billy Bailey (DE 1998).

Current Application:

Only two states, New Hampshire and Washington, currently authorize hanging as a method of execution, however only as an alternative to lethal injection.


News and Articles

December 11, 2003 - Analysis: Is lethal injection humane?

Analysis: Is lethal injection humane?

A lawsuit filed in Texas is presenting a new challenge to the lethal injection method of execution used to carry out the death sentences of convicted killers.

Although the deadly combination of chemicals has been attacked before, the latest campaign is based on "evolving standards of decency" and the fact that Texas and some other states have banned the use of the drugs in pet euthanasia.

In its Atkins vs. Virginia decision last year the U.S. Supreme Court cited "evolving standards of decency" in ordering an end to the execution of the mentally retarded and lawyers in the new Texas case are adopting the same argument.

"Evolving standards of decency require that they use a more humane method (of execution)," said Jim Marcus, executive director of the Texas Defender Service and one of the lawyers representing three death row inmates in the lawsuit.

"If we win, it doesn't mean the state could not execute the plaintiffs, it just means they would have to do with a more humane mixture of chemicals."

The new arguments are based on a recent trend in Texas and other states to ban the use of the some of the same chemicals in the euthanization of dogs and other animals. They also cite a American Veterinary Medical Association recommendation against the use of the drugs to put down an animal.

"If evolving standards of decency, as reflected by legislative action and professional association of veterinarians, preclude the use of these particular drugs when killing a dog or a cat, then certainly those same standards of decency would require a more humane, readily available version of the lethal injection for human beings as well," the lawsuit states.

The plaintiffs' lawyers argue that the use the combination of 3 drugs, used by Texas since 1982 in the execution of 313 convicted killers, is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

In Texas, sodium thiopental is used to put the inmate to sleep, pancuronium bromide is used to paralyze muscles although it does not affect sensation, and potassium chloride activates nerve fibers lining the veins and brings on cardiac arrest.

"Far from producing a rapid and sustained loss of consciousness and humane death, this particular combination of chemicals often causes the inmate to consciously suffer an excruciatingly painful and protracted death," the lawsuit alleges.

In its response, the Texas attorney general argued that the plaintiffs failed to show that the administration of the drugs resulted in "a substantial risk of excruciating pain" and there was no reason to believe the inmate in a routine execution would feel any more than the intravenous injection followed by unconsciousness.

Although the merits of the lawsuit have yet to be addressed by the courts the legal wrangling generated by the lawyers halted the executions of two of the plaintiffs this week. The third plaintiff's execution was stayed because of questions about his mental capacity under the Atkins ruling.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia halted the execution of Kevin Zimmerman about 15 minutes before he was to receive a lethal injection late Wednesday at Huntsville, although it was unclear whether the high court would hear the merits of the lawsuit at this stage of the legal fight.

Deborah Denno, a Fordham University Law professor and expert on capital punishment, said it appears the federal courts are taking a serious look at the administration of the death penalty in states like Texas.

"They have gotten the sense there are problems with what Texas does in its methods of execution as well as in the entire death penalty system," she said. "They have seen this so much with the same state and same process that I think they are really going to look into this."

27 of the 37 states that have lethal injection as a death penalty option use the same combination of drugs in executions. Texas, however, is far and away the leader among states in carrying out the death penalty. 24 convicted killers were executed this year with nine already scheduled for next year, beginning Jan. 6. It's unclear how this case might affect those executions.

Lawsuits similar to the Texas action have been filed in about a dozen other states and Denno attributes the growing campaign to the new public stand of veterinary groups against the drugs but also the fact that more is known today about the execution process than ever before in the United States.

"When there were these initial challenges in 1978 the prison officials were so guarded, and were allowed to be so guarded then, it was impossible to find out what the process was like and what was really going on," she said.

Texas began using lethal injection in 1982 and was the scene of the only evidentiary hearing on the use of the drug combinations in 1978. The method was upheld by the court and it's a model for most states but since then there's been growing pressure on states to disclose their methods.

"The more people know they really question the process," said Denno.

(source: United Press International)