Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “An eye for an eye,” a paraphrasing of several Old and New Testament verses dealing with crime and punishment. The intent of these verses, in simplest terms, is to ensure that the punishment for a crime does not exceed the harm done by the act. In other words, if John puts out Sam’s eye, John’s appropriate punishment would be the loss of one of his own eyes – not both eyes, additional maiming, or even execution. The punishment fits the crime.
The phrase has been borrowed by many proponents of the death penalty, a punishment that has come in and out of favor over the millennia. The debate over its appropriateness rages on, and today, different countries and even individual states have differing legislation. Some outlaw the death penalty altogether. Others permit it only under certain circumstances, such as when the convicted person commits murder along with another of a list of felonies, such as kidnapping. Among those states that do have the death penalty, methods have varied throughout the years as well.
Arguably, the most commonly thought of execution method may be the electric chair. Known by such names as “Old Sparky”, “Old Smokey” and simply “the chair”, the electric chair came into use in the 1800s, with the first execution taking place in 1889. Due to several botched executions, including events during which inmates’ bodies caught fire or the condemned survived the initial execution attempt, the chair fell out of favor. As of 2012, only eight US states still use the electric chair. Six of these offer the condemned a choice between the chair and lethal injection, and the remaining two reserve Old Sparky as a fallback method in case lethal injection is ever outlawed or deemed cruel and unusual punishment.
Lethal injection is also used or allowed in the 26 other US states that permit the death penalty as of 2012. This method, often criticized for being “too easy” on the condemned, involves the use of several drugs, typically consisting of three separate injections. The drugs administered are sodium thiopental or pentobarbital, which bring on unconsciousness; pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the muscles, including those used for breathing; and potassium chloride, to stop the heart from beating. The latter two drugs can cause death in and of themselves, via asphyxiation or cardiac arrest, respectively.
Inmates on Oklahoma’s Death Row may choose execution by firing squad. However, the last four US executions to use this method took place in Utah, including the most recent one in 2010. That state outlawed death by firing squad in 2004, but the ruling was not retroactive, meaning that four inmates on Death Row at that time were still free to choose this method.
Hanging, a popular method of execution in the past, is still available in Washington and New Hampshire, although it was last used in Delaware in 1996. As with Oklahoma inmates and the firing squad, condemned persons in Washington may choose hanging over lethal injection. New Hampshire only turns to hanging if lethal injection is not possible or practical for any reason.
Six US states currently authorize the use of the gas chamber under certain circumstances as well. The prisoner may choose this method of execution, or the state may elect to implement it if lethal injection cannot be used or if the crime was committed before a certain date, which varies by state. The gas chamber uses potassium cyanide pellets and sulfuric acid, which when combined produce the lethal gas hydrogen cyanide. This gas is then pumped into an airtight chamber in which the condemned sits. The gas chamber was last used in 1999.