William The Coroner’s Forensic Files

Tuesday, 22, June, 2010

Capital Punishment

Filed under: Haterade,People who need pianos dropped on them,Politics — williamthecoroner @ 22:52

With the death of Ronnie Lee Gardner in Utah last week, much ink has been spilled on the subject of capital punishment. I am profoundly ambivalent about capital punishment. One the one hand, as a firearms owner, I have no problem with violence recoiling upon the violent. On the other hand, I trust no institution of men to be able to administer justice perfectly. Frankly, with some governments I have lived under I don’t trust them to investigate building violations properly, let alone take someone’s life.

As a forensic pathologist, I have long been interested in the pathology of capital punishment. I keep meaning to write an article about it. I’ve been meaning to write the damn article for the past twelve years. I don’t think it’s gonna happen any time soon. But Robb Allen’s post caught my eye recently, and that stimulated my thinking.

To the best of my knowledge, 36 governments in the United States (34 states, the military, and the federal government) have the death penalty on the books. In Victorian Britain, there are 222 capital offenses, which was reduced to three (murder, treason, arson in the Royal Dockyards–i.e. sabotage of the Navy) by the 1960’s. The United States has held that only murder and treason are worth taking another person’s life in the late XX century. There are five different methods of execution on the books in the United States, shooting, hanging, gassing, electrocution, and lethal injection.

The history of execution methods is interesting. Many doctors have been involved, and many methods have been employed to make the deaths 1. swift, 2. painless, and 3. clean. Unfortunately, the human body is quite tough. And, like the old joke, you can pick any two. The ones that are swift and painless tend to be, well, oogie. Shooting in the head with a shotgun is swift and painless. It splatters, though. Decapitation, swift, painless, and bloody. Hanging, now, that is hit or miss. Too long a drop, and there is a decapitation. To short a drop, and the person lives on the rope for minutes.

All the other, “modern”, “scientific” methods of killing, well are clean, but are neither swift nor painless. Just ask Caryl Chessman or Jesse Joseph Tafero. The more modern methods also give deniability to the people who carry out the execution. No one knows exactly who flips the switch or has the blank charge. This is a separate issue. If you don’t want perform an execution, don’t be the headsman. If one is unwilling to own one’s actions, they probably shouldn’t be done. Certainly if one desires a clean kill, make a clean kill, and mop up the mess.

And if the mess is enough to keep you from performing an execution, then don’t do them. LWOP is a perfectly good deterrent. But then, again, mean what you say. In Europe, Life in Prison means parole eligibility in fifteen years. . For reasons of squeamishness, for concerns about justice, for mercy in general, I can understand the desire to avoid capital punishment. Don’t forget about the victim years later, though.


  1. If we’re going to have the courts kill people, it damn well ought to be messy. It strikes me that too much has been made of “clinical” “capital punishment” “procedures”, and mostly in order to persuade people that taking someone’s life isn’t really so bad… perhaps that if we “execute” (a euphemism for “kill” that’s passed its best-before date) an innocent person, we’re merely administering a medical procedure rather than traumatically destroying vital organs. State-ordered killings should be quick and painless first — and graphic, bloody, and disturbing second, because death is permanent and traumatic and irrevocable and ought to be as politically inconvenient as possible, especially when ordered by the state.

    I don’t understand “clean” methods of execution (such as lethal injection) well enough to comment, but from what I’ve gathered (which may be bullshit) they’re the worst of both worlds: unreliable and painful enough to be considered cruel and unusual, and clean and “medical” enough to be palatable to a great many judges, politicians, and voters. That strikes me as bad news.

    Comment by bluntobject — Tuesday, 22, June, 2010 @ 23:19 | Reply

    • Matt, I agree. I have no problem, as a physician, to having someone being strapped to the mouth of a cannon and having a shell fired through him. Quick, painless, and spectacularly messy. If I have to die–and I’d rather not, TYVM, but I’m not delusional–I want to get it bloody over with. Frankly, there were very few politicians who actually acted as headsmen. I think Grover Cleveland, in his capacity as Sheriff acted as executioner, and he’s the only chief executive I know who’s actually done anything like that other than Vladimir Putin.

      The main problem with lethal injection, is you have untrained people farting around trying to find a vein. Femoral lines are easy to get, I can get them on DEAD PEOPLE. but the folks involved aren’t MDs, so they aren’t trained in doing that, and it is considered unethical by doctors to train the folks–again, to make it as politically inconvenient as possible.

      Comment by williamthecoroner — Wednesday, 23, June, 2010 @ 08:10

  2. I have the same problems with capital punishment- I like your “investigate building violations properly” example; much better than the “calculating taxes properly” I normally cite.

    I assume administering a lethal does of an opiate has some complication to explain why it’s not done?

    Comment by Sean — Wednesday, 23, June, 2010 @ 09:02 | Reply

    • I dunno. Lethal injection uses a three-drug cocktail, an anesthetic, a paralytic, and an agent to stop the heart. It seems silly that vets are able to put dogs and cats to sleep daily, but the government can’t manage it for people. The kerfuffle arises from the cardiopeligia could be painful, but the paralysis would keep the prisoner from reacting. So there could be some time of suffering with ischemic pain when the heart stopped before awareness stopped. I don’t know why massive doses of barbiturates would not work, but it might be slower. The mechanism of death in OD cases is basically the drugs suppress respiration drive, and that might take too much time for the witnesses. Again, though, it is different for pets.

      Comment by williamthecoroner — Wednesday, 23, June, 2010 @ 09:10

  3. One other point to consider: The method of execution should be relatively safe for those who administer it. The various G agents would be quick and effective, but rather dangerous for those who transport the corpse.

    I mostly support death as punishment for those who kill (or attempt to kill) strangers. Those are the murderers who put me, as a member of society, most at risk. Note that home invasions and armed robbery carry the presumption of “attempting to kill”. I’m more merciful for those who commit murder with the family, or within a group of friends. Those killers seem to be much less a threat to *me*.

    Comment by Glen — Wednesday, 23, June, 2010 @ 09:08 | Reply

  4. Shoot em all… It SHOULD be messy, as a reminder… And I do not believe they should be allowed unlimited appeals, their victims sure as hell didn’t get them…

    Comment by Old NFO — Wednesday, 23, June, 2010 @ 09:18 | Reply

  5. According to Labrat at Atomic Nerds, even a hanging done “just right” so as to break the neck causes death by slow strangulation, just like an amateur short drop. The only difference being that there is no kicking and wiggling to gross out the spectators.

    As you actually do seem to be an expert about this kind of thing, I ask you: Is she right, or what?

    Comment by Justthisguy — Sunday, 27, June, 2010 @ 17:09 | Reply

    • LabRat is incorrect. The breaking of the neck leads to neurogenic shock. In addition, the C2 spinous process is driven into the medulla, where the reticular activating system is located. Those neurons are the ones that control respiration, and heartbeat, and level of consciousness. For further information, and an autopsy report, look here:

      Comment by williamthecoroner — Sunday, 27, June, 2010 @ 17:36

  6. Oh, Glen? A very wise woman once pointed out to me that the easiest crime to get away with is the murder of a stranger.

    Comment by Justthisguy — Sunday, 27, June, 2010 @ 17:16 | Reply

  7. The method I would choose for myself, it I were gonna do it to me? Pure nitrogen atmosphere. You go out happy, from the hypoxia.

    Comment by Justthisguy — Sunday, 27, June, 2010 @ 17:26 | Reply

  8. Comment to your comment on my comment: Thanks! I read that article, and what I think I learned from it is that a lot depends on the skill of the hangman. I also read some of the other articles and think I’d prefer to go in the former Utah shooting style. Not that I have anything against autoerotic asphyxiation…

    Comment by Justthisguy — Tuesday, 29, June, 2010 @ 16:42 | Reply

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