Over the past 100 years, states have sought the most humane execution methods, each supposedly “guaranteed” to eliminate the gruesome errors of previous uncivilized methods, reported the Washington Post. At the beginning of the 19th century, hanging was the universally accepted execution method.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the electric chair was introduced and quickly spread, thanks to the Gerry Commission (named after its chairman, Elbridge Gerry, grandson of the early Massachusetts governor who bequeathed the gerrymander to American politics). The Gerry Commission reviewed and rejected all known execution methods as barbaric and uncivilized — except the brand-new electric chair, then guaranteed to kill the inmate “in the ten-thousandth part of a second.” Thomas Edison vouched for this, the courts went along, and electrocution was soon the main method of state killing.
In 1924, Nevada adopted the gas chamber. Few other states joined in, partly because of the association with Nazi extermination camps, and partly because it was so difficult to seal the deadly gas within the chamber or to vent it safely after the prisoner was dead.
In 1982, Texas was the first to use lethal injection when it executed Charles Brooks Jr. Lethal injection thus became the most recent in a series of “institutional fads.” As you can see in the chart above, since the decline of hanging, no method of execution has remained popular for long.
In 1977, Oklahoma developed the three-drug protocol that most states quickly adopted. Jay Chapman, the Oklahoma state medical examiner at the time, designed the procedure to improve on what he had seen occur during use of the electric chair.
In writing the laws for that procedure, state Sen. Bill Dawson and Rep. Bill Wiseman had little or no consultations with doctors or scientists. The protocol was never subjected to any serious testing or evaluation. They didn’t consider any of the available evidence assessing the risks of lethal injection. The law left all critical decisions to the prison officials in charge of the execution, who often have little medical training or experience. And even the best procedures can go wrong if carried out by inexperienced, stressed and untrained personnel.
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