How Capital Punishment Works In The United States

Length: 703 words

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).


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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). 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.


“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.

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