The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

89° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


No method of execution is humane enough to be legal

Executions are not, and never will be, humane. Disguising executioners in white lab coats and allowing them to shoot prisoners with chemicals instead of bullets does not constitute humanity. Rather, it allows us as a society to sleep soundly at night, free from the guilt we might feel if the government killed people using gas chambers or electric chairs.

Yet despite the inherent barbarity of putting someone to death, lawmakers have historically employed the concept of “humaneness” as justification for the currently available methods of execution.

Until the late 1800s, nearly every state carried out executions by hanging, a punishment utilized worldwide for thousands of years. Eventually, however, a series of botched hangings caused most legislatures to forgo the practice in favor of electrocution. By 1915, 12 states had adopted electrocution statutes under the theory that the electric chair was less painful and more humane than the noose.

When Oklahoma became the first state to legalize lethal injection in 1977, death penalty proponents hailed the practice as a superior alternative to electrocution. Many states followed suit, praising death by lethal injection as quick and painless.

Today, the state of Oklahoma continues to be a pioneer in the field of execution technology. On March 3, Oklahoma’s House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of HB 1879, a bill that would allow the state to conduct executions via nitrogen hypoxia if the proper lethal injection drugs are unavailable. Republicans Mike Christian and Anthony Sykes, the bill’s sponsors, claim that nitrogen hypoxia might ultimately prove more humane than lethal injection.

What exactly is nitrogen hypoxia?

It is a type of asphyxiation that is induced by breathing nitrogen instead of oxygen. Nitrogen, an inert gas, is not actually toxic, and therefore does not directly affect bodily functions. However, breathing nitrogen in an oxygen-deficient environment prevents cells from obtaining oxygen and ultimately leads to death. The procedure has not been thoroughly researched as a mode of execution.

Ultimately, regardless of whether a prisoner is hung from a tree or deprived of oxygen, all forms of execution yield the same result: death. And death is a painful process. Lawmakers who propose new, “better” forms of execution are not acting out of compassion for the condemned, but out of a desire to mask the sheer brutality of capital punishment.

Nobody wants to accept responsibility for an execution that sets a man’s skin on fire or breaks his neck; nobody wants to witness the death of a man who spends his final minutes writhing and screaming in pain. But when death seems quick and painless, as though it is simply a form of prolonged sleep, it is easy to pretend that executions are not acts of cruelty.

Despite Oklahoma’s push for an improved execution method, most state laws make it clear that “humaneness” is nothing more than a superficial pretense used to justify capital punishment. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, several states allow electrocution, gas chambers or firing squads to be employed if lethal injection is ever declared unconstitutional. The continued existence of alternative methods in state statutes reveals stunning hypocrisy; if lawmakers genuinely cared about treating death row inmates humanely, they would abolish such methods altogether.

Pretending that executions can be humane effectively prevents us from engaging in meaningful dialogue about the death penalty. Until we accept the reality that all forms of execution amount to simple revenge killing, capital punishment will continue to negatively impact criminal justice in the U.S.


Elizabeth Hannah is biochemistry sophomore. Follow her on Twitter.

More to Discover
Activate Search