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Electrocution. Firing squad. Hanging. Gas chamber. Lethal injection. Any of these sound familiar? These are the existing methods of execution that are used today by the 38 states supporting the death penalty. Are these forms of the death penalty humane? Is the death penalty itself humane? Is there a viable humane alternative to these methods? Throughout history, the humanity of the death penalty, its methods, and its deployment have been questioned due to the trauma that is inflicted on the criminal. Flames shooting out from the headgear during an electrocution, a prisoner banging his head against a pole in an effort to quicken his death and needles coming loose from the condemned during lethal injection are just a few examples of botched executions. Could there be a method that would be virtually “botchless?” The short answer is yes. This method is called Nitrogen Asphyxiation, a form of death that occurs more often than it is heard about. A person subjected to pure nitrogen gas simply goes to sleep without waking up, unknowing and painlessly. If nitrogen asphyxiation were employed as a form of execution, it could become the primary method. In turn this would help do away with a lot of the controversy over capital punishment.
In October of 1994, a judge in a California state court ruled that the gas chamber is a form of cruel and unusual punishment (Murphy). This account was the first ruling ever by a state or federal judge to invalidate a method of execution. The judge noted that the condemned might remain conscious for several minutes after the beginning of the execution and experience, “anxiety, panic, terror,” and, “exquisitely painful muscle spasms,” with, “Intense visceral pain” (Murphy).
All executions currently used today involve inflicting some sort of trauma to carry out the sentence. Moreover, each method can and has gone askew. On April 6, 1992 in an Arizona gas chamber, Donald Harding was not pronounced dead until 10 1/2 minutes after the cyanide tablets were dropped (Howe). During the execution, Harding thrashed and struggled violently against the restraining straps. A television journalist who witnessed the execution, Cameron Harper, said that Harding’s spasms and jerks lasted 6 minutes and 37 seconds (Howe). “Obviously, this man was suffering. This was a violent death…an ugly event. We put animals to death more humanely” (Howe). Another witness, newspaper reporter Carla McClain, said, “Harding’s death was extremely violent.
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Rarely performed in modern times is the method of hanging. Documented accounts for botched modern hangings do not exist due to the few amounts of hangings performed since 1976. “The Corrections Professional,” a periodical for correctional institutions and their employees, gives details of what could happen if a hanging is not performed correctly. If the inmate has strong neck muscles, is very light, if the ‘drop’ is too short, or the noose has been wrongly positioned, the fracture-dislocation is not rapid and death results from slow asphyxiation (“Executions…” 23). If this occurs the face becomes engorged, the tongue protrudes, the eyes pop, the body defecates, and violent movements of the limbs occur (“Executions…” 23). One can only imagine what it was like in the past when hangings weren’t regulated.
Seen to be the most controversial method of the death penalty is electrocution. In one of the most famous accounts of electrocution gone wrong is that of Florida’s own Jessie Joseph Tafero. On May 4th of 1990 Tafero was strapped into the notorious chair that is widely know as “Old Sparky.” The switch was thrown and 2000 volts of electricity surged though his body. During the execution, six-inch flames erupted from Tafero’s head, and three jolts of power were required to stop his breathing. State officials claimed that the botched execution was caused by, “inadvertent human error,” the inappropriate substitution of a synthetic sponge for a natural sponge that had been used in previous executions (Barnett).
Given these mishaps, abolitionists would argue to have all of these methods thrown out due to them being “cruel and unusual.” The reason for these efforts is to deem the practice of carrying out the death penalty unconstitutional even if the death penalty itself is theoretically just. A method that would not inflict any pain or trauma whatsoever could revolutionize the means of capital punishment. Several accidental cases and documented warnings suggest such a method as a possibility.
In the spring of 1998, two workers were performing a routine black-light inspection of a four-foot diameter pipe at the Union Carbide Taft/Star Manufacturing plant in Hahnville, LA when tragedy struck. Unbeknownst to the workers, the pipe was being purged with nitrogen in order to prevent oxidation, commonly known as rust. There was not a warning sign posted on or near the pipe opening, identifying it as a confined space that contained potential fatally hazardous nitrogen (“Confined…” 9). Nitrogen is an odorless, tasteless, invisible gas that is a major component of ordinary air. So when the workers entered the pipe they had no indication that anything was out of the ordinary. After covering one end of the pipe with black plastic for shade to make it easier to conduct the inspection in the daylight, the two workers were suddenly overcome by nitrogen. When coworkers found the two men, one was unconscious and the other was dead (“Confined…” 9).
It is not necessary for nitrogen to displace all 21% of oxygen normally found in the air in order to cause harm to people. OSHA requires that oxygen levels be maintained at or above 19.5% in order to prevent injury to workers (“Accident…”). According to the Compressed Gas Association, “exposure to atmospheres containing 8-10 percent or less oxygen will bring about unconsciousness without warning and so quickly that the individuals cannot help or protect themselves” (“Compressed…”). Exposure to an atmosphere containing 6-8 percent oxygen can be fatal in as little as 6 minutes (“Compressed…”). Exposure to an atmosphere containing 4-6 percent oxygen can result in a coma in 40 seconds and subsequent death (“Compressed…”).
A similar example of the physiology of asphyxiation can be found in a hazardous risk to free divers who hyperventilate before diving called shallow water blackout. When a diver holds his breath he develops a powerful urge to breath. This is caused not by the depletion of oxygen in his body, but by the buildup of carbon dioxide in his bloodstream. Because of him hyperventilating, he has blown off the “breathe indicator” of carbon dioxide; and as a result, he notices the urge to breathe at the point when his blood oxygen level is already dangerously low (“Shallow…”). If his blood oxygen level falls too low before he reaches the surface, the diver blacks out and drowns. As the workers at the Union Carbide plant continued to exhale carbon dioxide, they never developed the urge to breathe. So while inhaling pure nitrogen, they brought their blood oxygen level so low that they blacked out and unfortunately one died.
The death penalty is one of the most debated over issues in America today. Most debates boil down to the humanity of the procedure and how morally wrong it is to execute humans in such gruesome manners. The accounts of inflicting pain on the condemned can be traced back to the medieval times of drawing and quartering. Furthermore, the implementation of the guillotine carried the ancient rumor that the freshly severed head stays couscous for 15 seconds after the deed has been done. Even today, every method involves using some sort of toxic chemical or inflicting some physical trauma. A method that does not involve any such trauma or chemical would be ideal. Nicholas Jenkins comments in his article in New Yorker, “In order to survive, the death penalty must adapt to other fantasies, prominent among them the wish to kill with out making a show of it and without assuming the guilt that comes with inflicting pain” (36). These accidental accounts of asphyxiation could be used in a manner that could do more good than harm. Nitrogen asphyxiation may be the ideal way to carry out the death sentence. The victim is not stunned by the burning urge to breathe or the choking sensation of not having any air. As far as he realizes, he is breathing normally. Carbon dioxide is not building up in his bloodstream, so he never realizes that he is in danger. The subject is never in any pain he simply just passes out when his blood oxygen level falls to low.
Based on this research, nitrogen asphyxiation could be the perfect method of execution. Nitrogen is a routinely used gas and is readily available making it cheap; and by no means is it hazardous if a slip up occurs. For example if there were some sort of leak, the observers or executioners would not be harmed because nitrogen is a major component of the air that we breathe. A death row inmate could be put in airtight cell to begin with so that all that needs to be done is the turn of a valve to concentrate the cell with nitrogen. The man would painlessly pass out and die from lack of oxygen. The capital criminal would be in no more pain than what was created in his own mind.