Methods of Execution

There are nine common methods of execution which include: hanging, shooting by firing squad, shooting, beheading, lethal injection, stoning, gas chamber, electrocution, and falling from an unknown height.  The most common method authorized by law is hanging, with sixty countries authorizing this practice, while the least common methods include electrocution, gas chamber, and falling from an unknown height.  The United States is the only country to authorize both electrocution and gas chamber and Iran is the only country to authorize pushing individuals from an unknown height.  Additionally, the method of execution for Maldives is unknown and Sudan uses a method which calls for retributive sentences to be carried out in the same manner in which the offender caused death.

The countries that authorize hanging as a method of execution include: Afghanistan, Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominica, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, India, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Korea, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Uganda, United States, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The Democratic Republic of the Congo specifies that they use hanging only in military courts, but the president has the power to designate the method of execution.  Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Uganda indicate that they only use hanging for offenses tried in civilian courts and India is the only country to specify that they use hanging for offenses tried in both civilian and military courts. 

There are twenty-eight countries that authorize shooting by firing squad as a method of execution and twenty-two more that authorize shooting.  Many countries do not clarify the distinction between shooting by firing squad and shooting, but some countries indicate that shooting by firing squad includes multiple shots fired by multiple people while shooting includes a single shot to the back of the head.  The countries which employ shooting by firing squad include: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Palestine, Sierra Leone, South Korea, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United States, and Vietnam. Equatorial Guinea, Lebanon, and Uganda indicate that this method is only used for offenses tried in military courts.  The countries that use shooting include: Bangladesh, Belarus, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Guinea, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Laos, Mauritania, Morocco, North Korea, Qatar, Russia, Somalia, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tunisia, and Yemen. The Democratic Republic of the Congo indicates that this practice is only to be used for offenses committed in civilian courts, but the president has the power to designate the method of execution.  Additionally, India and Syria indicate that this method of execution is only to be used for offenses tried in military courts while Iraq states that shooting could potentially be used as a means of execution. 

Stoning is the next most common method of execution authorized by law with nine countries authorizing this practice.  These countries include: Indonesia, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.  Many of these countries qualify the use of stoning stating that it can only be used for particular offenses.  For example, Mauritania authorizes stoning only for adultery and homosexual relations, Nigeria authorizes stoning only for adultery, rape, incest, and homosexual sodomy, and Pakistan states that it will only use this method for rape or adultery.  In practice, stoning is almost never used to execute criminal offenders.  Most stonings that have been reported in recent years have been carried out extrajudicially—for example, by armed groups in Somalia.

There are four countries that authorize beheading and six that authorize lethal injection as a method of execution.  The countries that authorize beheading are Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, while the countries that allow lethal injection are China, Guatemala, Taiwan, Thailand, United States, and Vietnam.

Several international organizations have commented on various methods of execution, condoning them or calling for more humane treatment where the death penalty is used.  The Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty provides that “where capital punishment occurs, it shall be carried out so as to inflict the minimum possible suffering.”  Moreover, in its General Comment 20, the Committee recognized that when the death penalty is imposed, it must be carried out in a manner to cause “the least possible physical and mental suffering.”  Nonetheless, human rights bodies have generally avoided deciding whether specific methods of execution constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.  One exception is the Human Rights Committee, which held in Ng v. Canada, Communication No. 469/1991, para. 16.4, that execution by gas asphyxiation amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment. The United Nations Human Rights Commission also noted that execution by stoning was a “particularly cruel or inhuman means of execution” (Resolution 2005/29: The Question of the Death Penalty, para. 7(i)).

Many commentators have pointed out that mental and physical suffering are an unavoidable consequence of the death penalty. In their view, all punishments involve a certain degree of pain and suffering, and for that reason it cannot be said that all methods of execution violate international human rights norms.  In the Ng case, the Human Rights Committee determined that any suffering that lasted more than 10 minutes was unacceptable:  “In the present case, the author has provided detailed information that execution by gas asphyxiation may cause prolonged suffering and agony and does not result in death as swiftly as possible, as asphyxiation by cyanide gas may take over 10 minutes.”  This is an inherently subjective assessment, and some commentators have questioned whether capital punishment itself should be considered cruel and inhuman.  In January 2009, for example, the Special Reporter on Torture, an independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, observed:

If the amputation of limbs is considered cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, how can beheading then be qualified differently?  If even comparatively lenient forms of corporal punishment, such as 10 strokes on the buttocks, are absolutely prohibited under international human rights law, how can hanging, the electric chair, execution by firing squad, and other forms of capital punishment ever be justified under the same provisions.

Manfred Nowak, United Nations Human Rights Council, Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development, p. 11 para. 38, A/HRC/10/44, Jan. 14, 2009.

A variety of national courts have also held that certain methods of execution are cruel and inhuman forms of punishment. In Fierro v. Gomez, 865 F.Supp. 1387 (N.D. Cal. 1994), a United States federal judge in California ruled that the use of the gas chamber was cruel and unusual punishment.  The decision was upheld on appeal.  Fierro v. Gomez, 77 F.3d 301 (9th Cir. 1996).  Additionally, in Dawson v. Georgia, 274 Ga. 327 S.E.2d (2001), the Supreme Court of Georgia held that using the electric chair as a method of execution constituted cruel and unusual punishment.  Moreover, in State v. Mata, 275 Neb. 1 N.W.2d 229 (2008)the Nebraska Supreme Court declared that electrocution constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Nebraska Constitution. 

Justice Egonda-Ntende of the Supreme Court of Uganda pointed out why hanging should be considered cruel and inhuman treatment in his dissenting opinion in Attorney General v. Susan Kigula & 416 others [2006].  He pointed to sworn affidavits provided by Dr. Harold Hillman of the United Kingdom and Dr. Albert Hunt from Scotland to conclude that hanging was cruel and inhuman. Mr. Hillman opined that hanging was humiliating because, among other things:

(i) The person is masked; (ii) The person’s wrists and ankles are bound to restrain him; (iii) The person cannot react to pain, distress and feeling of asphyxia, by the usual physiological responses of crying out or moving violently (although he sometimes twitches late in execution, usually attributed to the effect of lack of oxygen on the spinal cord); and (iv) The person hanged often sweats, drools, the eyes bulge and he micturates and defecates.

In the United States, advocates have argued that lethal injection, as applied under faulty state procedures, creates an unacceptable risk of suffering.  For example, some states use a drug combination that masks pain and makes it impossible to ascertain whether a prisoner is conscious at the moment he receives a lethal dose of potassium chloride, which causes an incredibly painful death if the prisoner is not properly anesthetized.  Advocates have also pointed out deficiencies in the way the drugs are administered, the lack of training required for those administering the drugs as well as the lack of clinical evidence showing the safety and effectiveness of certain drugs used in executions.  The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed these arguments in Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008)holding that a prisoner challenging a lethal injection protocol must show “that the State’s lethal injection protocol creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain” that is “substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives.”

In their concluding observations regarding the United States, however, both the Human Rights Committee (1995) and the Torture Committee (2006) called on the U.S. to review its execution methods in order to prevent severe pain and suffering. The Human Rights Committee, in particular, stated that a state party must take into account the prohibition against causing avoidable pain in its methods of execution.

Cases

Fierro v. Gomez, 77 F.3d 301 (9th Cir. 1996) (upholding a decision by the Northern District of California that the use of the gas chamber as a method of execution constitutes cruel and unusual punishment).

Dawson v. Georgia, 274 Ga. 327 S.E.2d (2001) (Supreme Court of Georgia in the United States held that using the electric chair as a method of execution constitutes cruel and unusual punishment).

State v. Mata, 275 Neb. 1 N.W.2d 229 (2008) (Nebraska Supreme Court declared that electrocution constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Nebraska Constitution).

Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008) (holding that a prisoner challenging a lethal injection protocol must show “that the State’s lethal injection protocol creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain” that is “substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives.”)

Ng v. Canada, Communication No. 469/1991, para. 16.4 (A majority of the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that execution by gas asphyxiation amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment).

Articles

Human Rights Watch, So Long as They Die: Lethal Injections in the United States, Vol. 18, No. 1, Apr. 23, 2006.

Deborah W. Denno, When Legislatures Delegate Death: The Troubling Paradox Behind State Uses of Electrocution and Lethal Injection and What it Says About Us, Ohio State Law Journal, Vol. 63: 63, 2002.

Richard C. Dieter, Methods of Execution and Their Effect on the Use of the Death Penalty in the United States, 35 Fordham Urb. L.J. 789 (2008) (examining how the choice of various methods of execution have affected the United States’ perception of the death penalty and specifically focusing on how the debate around lethal injection has influenced popular opinion regarding the death penalty).

Timothy S. Kearns, The Chair, the Needle, and the Damage Done: What the Electric Chair and the Rebirth of the Method-of-Execution Challenge Could Mean for the Future of the Eighth Amendment, 15 Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 197 (2005) (advocating for the abolition of the electric chair as a method of execution by giving an overview of both Supreme Court and Lower Court treatment of electrocution and addressing why evolving standards of decency indicate that execution by electrocution should no longer be supported).

Julian Davis Mortenson, Earning the Right to Be Retributive: Execution Methods, Culpability Theory, and the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause, 88 Iowa L. Rev. 1099 (2003) (focusing on botched executions to challenge defenses of painful executions and arguing that such executions cannot be supported under the Eight Amendment).

Eric Berger, Lethal Injection and the Problem of Constitutional Remedies, 27 Yale L. & Pol’y Rev. 259, 262-63 (2009) (explaining why courts have been reluctant to rule against the use of lethal injection as a method of execution and arguing that such judicial reluctance is misplaced).

Last updated on June 22, 2012

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