English Across the Curriculum

The Death Penalty

Methods of Execution


Hanging was used as a main method of execution throughout the Middle Ages up to the beginning of the 20th century. It is still used in some states today. This method of execution depends on the length and strength of the rope. The noose is waxed or oiled so that it slides better. The criminal stands on a platform and falls through a trap door. Death comes fast if the neck snaps but slowly if a prisoner dies from suffocation.

Firing Squad

An inmate stands or sits in front of a wall with sandbags around him to absorb blood. The firing squad is made up of five to six shooters, one of whom gets blank ammunition. In most cases the prisoner is blindfolded before an execution.

Electric Chair

Towards the end of the 19th century governments looked for a more humane way of killing. The first electrocution took place in 1890 in New York. Today, the electric chair is only used in some states. An inmate is strapped into a wooden chair with metal clips attached to his arms and legs. A wet sponge is put between a shaven head and a metal plate so that electricity can pass better. About 500 – 2000 volts of electricity pass through the body for about half a minute, then a doctor comes to determine death. Electrocution results in severe burns of the body.

Gas Chamber

In the 1920s the first prisoner was executed by gas in Nevada. It was thought to be an alternative to the electric chair. The prisoner sits in a chair while cyanide gas flows into an airtight chamber. Eyewitnesses have reported that death seems to be very painful as inmates struggle against their fate. The heart does not get the oxygen that it needs.

Lethal injection

Lethal injection is the primary method of killing an inmate in the United States. It was first used in 1977 in Oklahoma.

A prisoner is strapped to a gurney and a needle is inserted into the bloodstream. The execution takes place in three stages. First, an anaesthetic puts them to sleep, then a solution paralyses muscles and stops breathing. The third liquid is potassium chloride, a chemical that stops the heart from beating. Death comes in the form of a heart attack.

While doctors proclaim the death of an inmate, they are not allowed to take part in the killing, because it is unethical. This is done by special wardens of the prison.

Lethal injection table
Image: Ken Piorkowski, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons