Execution by Hanging Still Happens in the U.S. -- But Is It Humane?
by Dean Reynolds, ABC News
In 1993, Washington State executed Westley Allan Dodd, a convicted murderer of three children. He was hanged -- one of only three death-by-hanging executions in this country since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Washington and New Hampshire are the only states that currently provide for official hanging as a means of execution. But there has been no hanging since 1996 in this country.
"The U.S. has always been skittish and conscious of viewers," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Dieter said the shift from hanging to other methods has taken place to make executions "more palpable to the public."
"If hangings were the usual method, we probably would have done away with execution," he told ABCNEWS.com.
But compared to the lynch mob quality of Saddam Hussein's execution and the botched technique employed in the subsequent executions of his top henchmen this week, the United States looks punctilious.
There's a Right Way and a Wrong Way
Jim Willet, who witnessed 89 executions as a warden at the Walls Prison in Huntsville, Texas -- all of them by lethal injection -- said the Saddam execution wasn't carried out properly.
"My first thought in this is how unprofessional the people in this process were," says Willet.
In Dodd's case, he was taken to the gallows on Jan. 5, 1993. Instead of the sectarian hectoring Saddam was exposed to, Dodd's death was observed by a small number of witnesses separated from the actual gallows. His last moments were observed through a window and obscured by a curtain through which silhouettes were visible.
Dodd, who spoke of Jesus Christ in his last statement, had his hands bound in front of him. His legs were strapped together and a hood was placed over his head. In this case, a 6-coil noose was placed on his neck and cinched near the left ear. At 12:05 a.m., a red button was pushed and an electromagnetic release sprung the trap door on which Dodd was positioned. He dropped 7 feet into the room below and appeared lifeless almost instantly.
According to eyewitness accounts, there was no dancing at the end of the rope, no violent movement nor any twitching.
Indeed, hanging advocates frequently point to the quick and relatively painless death that hanging accomplishes.
"It has been and still is a matter of opinion whether, if you wish to kill your undesirable, it is better to... flay him until he dies, or hurl him over a precipice," writes British author Charles Duff. "Or burn him or drown or suffocate him; or entomb him alive ... or asphyxiate him in lethal chamber, or press him to death or cut off his head; or produce a sort of coma by means of an electric current ... For my own part, I have reached the conclusion that no people can point to a method which is more beautiful and expeditious, or which is aesthetically superior to the ... practice of breaking their necks by hanging."
In order for hangings to be done correctly, a relatively methodical regimen must be followed.
The inmate should be weighed before the execution date. A rehearsal using a sandbag roughly the same weight as the condemned should be used to determine the length of the drop necessary to ensure a quick death.
Some experts believe a botched hanging, in which the inmate does not die quickly, could last an agonizingly long 45 minutes.
Directions for Death
The rope, which should be 3/4-inch to 1-1/4-inch in diameter, must be boiled and stretched to eliminate spring or coiling. The knot should be lubricated with wax or soap "to ensure a smooth sliding action," according to the 1969 U.S. Army manual.
Immediately before the execution, the prisoner's hands and legs are secured, he or she is blindfolded, and the noose is placed around the neck, with the knot behind the left ear. The execution takes place when a trap-door is opened and the prisoner falls through.
Instantaneous death should occur, but death penalty opponents insist that is frequently not the case. There is also a question of "pain," however short-lived.
Dr. Harold Hillman, a British physiologist and student of executions, says that even when done properly, hanging means that "the dangling person probably feels cervical pain and suffers from an acute headache as a result of the rope closing off the veins of the neck." Finding a "humane" way to put someone to death has plagued every society that condones execution, says Sarah Tofte of Human Rights Watch. Tofte co-authored a piece last fall about lethal injection entitled, "So Long as They Die."
"We've discovered that no execution method is safe from being terribly botched," Tofte told ABCNEWS.com. "You're always subjecting an individual to experiencing some level of excruciating pain."
A 'Humane' Way to Kill?
Though Human Rights Watch is a strong opponent of the death penalty, Tofte said that the most humane method she's heard of is administering a single, massive dose of barbiturates, essentially drugging the prisoner to death. While it's mostly painless, she said, this method, "would be a lot harder for the witnesses" because it takes longer for the prisoner to die.
An expert panel in California is currently evaluating the method and will issue a report to Governor Schwarzenegger in May.
Meanwhile, hanging is the oldest and still most widely used method of execution in the world today, according to a British study on executions.
The research goes on to say that at the very least, 315 men and 4 women were hanged in 10 countries during 2006, many in public. There has not been a hanging execution in the United States since 1996, and only three overall since 1976 when the Supreme Court re-instated the death penalty.
From trees, to gallows, to stages with trap-doors, hanging continues to be an attempt at a highly visible deterrent.
Hang 'Em High
Again, referring to the British study, there are four main forms of hanging:
1. Short or no-drop hanging, in which the condemned drops just a few inches and in struggling against the noose, strangles himself. The struggle lasts, on average, one to three minutes. This method is still used extensively in the Middle East, specifically in Afghanistan, Iran, Libya and Syria.
2. Suspension hanging, in which the condemned is slowly raised by the neck and asphyxiated. This method is also used in the Middle East.
3. Standard drop-hanging, in which the prisoner drops a distance of four to six feet. It may or may not break the neck, so asphyxiation is also a possibility with this method.
The hanging of a prisoner by this method in 1942 at San Quentin federal penitentiary in California was described thusly: "The man hit bottom and (was) observed fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air. Blood was oozing though the black cap. He urinated, defecated and the droppings fell to the floor. The stench was terrible."
Some witnesses, needless to say, were taken ill by what they had seen. According to the British study, this method was used in the executions of 11 senior Nazis convicted at Nuremburg after World War Two. Several were said to have died slowly as a result.
In addition, those convicted in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln were executed in this fashion and at least two were said to have struggled for some considerable time after being suspended.
4. Measured or long-drop hanging, in which the person's height, weight and physique are calculated to ensure a quickly broken neck and subsequent death. In this fashion, a prisoner weighing, say, 115 pounds was supposed to drop eight and a half feet to ensure a proper result. But one weighing over 200 pounds would require a drop of four feet two inches to get the job done.
This, according to the New York Times, was the method that was supposed to be in force in Iraq on Monday, but which subsequently resulted in the decapitation of one of Saddam's half-brothers.
Done correctly, the method is designed to have the condemned person's neck be broken after the body has fallen a prescribed distance and is brought up short with a sharp jerk of the rope. The tightening noose and force of gravity which continues for a split second after the fall is broken, is designed to inflict a massive blow to the back and one side of the neck. The neck is then ruptured along with the spinal cord.
In theory, unconsciousness is almost immediate and is followed quickly by death.
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