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A New Way to Die

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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 ugly event. We put animals to death more humanely" (Howe). Another witness, newspaper reporter Carla McClain, said, "Harding's death was extremely violent. He was in great pain. I heard him gasp and moan. I saw his body turn from red to purple" (Howe).

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).




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