U.S. | Execution by nitrogen hypoxia doesn’t seem headed for widespread adoption as bills fall short and nitrogen producers object

The day after Alabama carried out the first-known US execution using nitrogen gas, its attorney general sent a clear message to death penalty states that might want to follow suit: “Alabama has done it, and now so can you.” Indeed, in the weeks immediately following the January execution of Kenneth Smith, it appeared a handful of states were listening, introducing bills that would adopt the method known as nitrogen hypoxia or a similar one. Officials behind each framed the legislation as an alternative method that could help resume executions where they had long been stalled.

India: Hanging most viable method to execute death row convicts, SC told

Govt opposes lethal injection and shooting as alternative methods of execution

Tribune News Service, New Delhi, January 9 - The NDA government on Tuesday opposed use of lethal injection to execute a death row convict, saying it “was not workable”.

During hearing of a PIL filed by advocate Rishi Malhotra, Additional Solicitor General Pinky Anand told a bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra that hanging by the neck was the most viable method to execute a death row convict.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra wondered how the court could decide the mode of execution.

It asked the Centre to file its response spelling out its stand on the contentious issue in four weeks. It said the government affidavit should have details about various modes of execution in other parts of the world.

In his PIL filed in September last year, Malhotra has sought abolition of the practice of hanging by the neck followed in India. Alternative methods such as intravenous lethal injection or shooting should be used for execution, Malhotra submitted in his petition.

Malhotra has contended that hanging involved prolonged pain and suffering compared to the other two methods.

He wanted the top court to “declare Right to Die by a dignified procedure of death” as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Quoting 1996 Supreme Court verdict in Gian Kaur vs State of Punjab, he submitted "the right to life, including the right to live with human dignity, would mean the existence of such a right up to the end of natural life. This also includes the right to a dignified life up to the point of death, including a dignified procedure of death…”

The entire execution process in hanging takes over 40 minutes to declare a convict dead while shooting involves not more than a few minutes and intravenous lethal injection it’s hardly five minutes, he contended.

Citing Law Commission’s 35th Report submitted to the government in 1967, he said most of the countries have adopted electrocution, firing squad or gas chamber as a substitute for death by hanging.

In his petition, Malhotra has requested the top court to declare unconstitutional Section 354(5) of the Criminal Procedure Code, which says "when any person is sentenced to death, the sentence shall direct that he be hanged by the neck till he is dead".

Source: The Tribune, Satya Prakash, January 9, 2018

No viable alternative to hanging, Centre tells court

There is no viable method at present other than hanging to execute condemned prisoners. Lethal injections are unworkable and often fail, the Centre told the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The government was responding to a query from the court on alternative modes of execution.

The court had previously said a condemned convict should die in peace and not in pain. A human being is entitled to dignity even in death.

Issuing notice, the court had asked the government to consider the the "dynamic progress" made in modern science to adopt painless methods of causing death.

Additional Solicitor-General Pinky Anand, while seeking more time to file a detailed affidavit, orally submitted that "today, there is no viable method other than hanging."

Petitioner-in-person and advocate Rishi Malhotra countered that death by lethal injection is practised in several States in the U.S. and even the Law Commission of India had recommended lethal injection.

The court gave the government 4 weeks to file the affidavit.

Death penalty unquestioned

The court has already clarified that it is not questioning the constitutionality of death penalty, which has been well-settled by the apex court, including in Deena versus Union of India and earlier in the Bachan Singh case reported in 1980. Section 354 (5), which mandates death by hanging, of the Code of Criminal Procedure has already been upheld.

However, the Bench had, in an earlier hearing, favoured a re-look at the practice of hanging to death as "the Constitution of India is an organic and compassionate document which recognises the sanctity of flexibility of law as situations change with the flux of time".

The court is hearing a writ petition filed by Delhi High Court lawyer Rishi Malhotra, who sought the court's intervention to reduce the suffering of condemned prisoners at the time of death. Mr. Malhotra said a convict should not be compelled to suffer at the time of termination of his or her life.

"When a man is hanged to death, his dignity is destroyed," Mr. Malhotra submitted.

Source: The Hindu, January 10, 2018

Govt's prerogative to decide on modes of execution of convicts: Supreme Court

The SC's response came on a PIL seeking quashing of Section 354(5) of CrPC, which states that when a person is sentenced to death, he shall be hanged by the neck till he is dead

The Supreme Court on Tuesday adjourned a plea seeking abolition of executing a death row convict by hanging and put the ball in the Centre's court. The apex court said it was the government's prerogative to decide the modes of carrying out capital punishment. "We can't say what should be the mode of carrying out a death sentence. Tell us what is happening in other countries" the SC bench, comprising of Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud said, as it adjourned the plea filed by lawyer Rishi Malhotra by 4 weeks. On October 6 last year, Malhotra had filed a petition in the apex court and sought quashing of Section 354(5) of the Criminal Procedure Code, which states that when a person is sentenced to death, he shall be hanged by the neck till he is dead.

The SC bench, comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, had then issued a notice to the Centre, seeking its response within 3 weeks on the PIL, while saying that the legislature could think of changing the law so that a convict, facing death penalty, dies "in peace and not in pain".

On Tuesday, Additional Solicitor General Pinky Anand, representing the Centre, said it was still working on other methods that could be used for capital punishment in place of hanging and sought time. The government said they had tested lethal injections, but it was not workable. "Lethal injections are not workable as there are instances of it failing," the government said.

During the hearing in October, Malhotra had contended that the 187th Report of the Law Commission advocated the removal of the present mode of execution from the statute. He also referred to Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution and said it also included the right of a condemned prisoner to have a dignified mode of execution so that death becomes less painful. The PIL had listed intravenous lethal injection, shooting, electrocution or gas chamber as other viable options.

"This means the right to a dignified life up to the point of death including a dignified procedure of death. In other words, this may include the right of a dying man to also die with dignity when his life is ebbing out," the petition said.

Source: indianexpress.com, January 10, 2018

Death by Hanging: The Brutal Facts

Screenshot from "Apprentice" by Junfeng Boo (2016)
Hanging is still the common method of execution in most retentionist nations around the world. Many executions by hanging take place in public.Offenders are hanged for a variety of violent and non-violent crimes.

Immediately before the execution, the prisoner's hands and legs are tied and secured, the noose was placed around the neck, with the knot behind the left ear. A hood is then pulled over the prisoner's head.

Hooding the prisoner saves the officials who have to witness the execution, from seeing the prisoner's face as he is about to die, and after the death. Not looking at the condemned person's face is one way of coming to terms with state-sanctioned murder, but righteousness is another.

The execution takes place when a trap-door is opened and the prisoner falls through. At the end of the 'drop' the body, still accelerating under the force of gravity, delivers a massive blow to the back and one side of the neck, which combined with the downward momentum of the body, breaks the neck and ruptures the spinal cord. The prisoner's weight causes a rapid fracture-dislocation of the neck. Death by hanging is supposedly caused by dislocation of the third and fourth cervical vertebrae or asphyxiation.

However, instantaneous death is rarely achieved. Death by hanging is not a humane method of exterminating a healthy human being. It is a very brutal and cruel death. The condemned often collapse or faint before the noose can be properly positioned over his head.

Death by hanging is often botched, or carried out in such a way as to intentionally maximize the prisoner's suffering.

Botched hangings result in strangulation, obstructed blood flow, or beheading. If the prisoner has strong neck muscles, is of light-weight, if the 'drop' is too short, or if the noose is wrongly positioned, the fracture-dislocation will not be rapid and death results from slow asphyxiation. The prisoner writhes and throttles to death over several minutes. In medical terms - death from cerebral contusion, shock and asphyxia.

There have been reported cases of the rope breaking during the 'drop', which resulted in the prisoner falling to the ground. After officials replaced the broken rope, the prisoner would again have to endure the emotional and physical torture of being hanged for a second time, usually taking place within the hour. In another reported incident, the head of a prisoner split from the body during the hanging.

When a human being is hanged, his face becomes engorged, the tongue protrudes, the mouth vomits and drools, the eyes pop, the body defecates, violent movements of body limbs occur, and the face begins to turn a greyish-black. Although the prisoner may appear to be unconscious, the heart does not completely stop beating for some 20 minutes.

Most people do not know that a human heart beats on its own - and continues to do so - even when the rest of the body has shut down. This happens because the human heart is hard-wired with electrical impulses. Thus, during a phase of some 20 minutes, the pulsations of the doomed heart become fainter and slower as the heart struggles to maintain its normal function to pump blood throughout the body, intent on keeping the body alive. Eventually, the heart lapses into a spasmodic rhythm, then begins to flutter, before it slowly collapses, fails, and finally stops all movement. In medical terms - this is the "true" time of death. The "official" time of death portrayed to the public is deliberately distorted for the obvious reason.

It has been generally assumed that fracture-dislocation of the neck causes instantaneous loss of sensation. Sensory pathways from below the neck may rupture, but the sensory signals from the skin above the noose and from the trigeminal nerve may continue to reach the brain until hypoxia blocks them. The belief that fracture of the spinal cord causes instantaneous death is wrong - whether it causes instantaneous loss of consciousness seems highly probable.

One case of a botched hanging was in Australia, that of Colin Campbell Ross. The 29 year old bar owner was hanged on April 24, 1922 at Melbourne Prison for the rape and murder of a 12 year old school girl. The new rope used to execute him proved to be a failure. The hanging was brutal and gruesome. Ross did not die quickly because his spinal cord was fractured, not severed. His windpipe was torn and obstructed by his damaged larynx. Hanging on the rope, Ross continued with rasping breaths and convulsions. He bent his knees and flexed his arms as he battled against the rope, slowly strangling for more than forty minutes before dying from asphyxiation.

Eighty-six years later, new evidence emerged of his innocence. Colin Campbell Ross was posthumously pardoned by the Victorian Government on May 27, 2008 following irrefutable scientific evidence that Ross could not have committed the crime.

It is important to note that regardless of methods used to legally kill people, there is no such thing as a clean, quick, instantaneous death of a healthy human being. Many botched executions have occurred in the past and many will continue to occur as long as the death penalty is carried out as punishment.

Short drop and simple suspension hanging

Short drop/suspension hanging accounts for a majority of all executions worldwide as well as a large number of suicides.

Iran is the leading user of this method and uses a coiled noose with the knot placed at or towards the back of the neck.

Public hanging in Karaj, Iran, August 2014
Hanging with little or no drop typically causes death by a combination of the tightening noose occluding the carotid arteries and jugular veins causing cerebral hypoxia (ischemia), i.e. a severely reduced flow of oxygenated blood to and from the brain and asphyxia due to the weight of the person's body forcing the base of the tongue upwards against the back of the mouth, blocking the airway and thus preventing breathing.

It may also constrict the trachea (air passage), however this requires some 33 pounds per square inch of pressure to compress.

Compression of the carotid arteries may also cause rapid heart stoppage due to carotid/Vagal reflex, this requiring just 11 pounds per square inch of pressure, whereas compression of the jugular veins only requires some 4.5 pounds per square inch of pressure.

The vertebrae protect the vertebral and spinal arteries which also supply blood to the brain. However, these arteries go outside the fourth vertebrae instead of inside it, which subjects them to blockage if the pressure on the neck is high enough (usually about 40-50 pounds per square inch of pressure).

Consciousness can be lost in as little as 8-10 seconds or persist for as much as a minute.  Flashes of light and “blackness” together with feelings of weakness and powerlessness have been reported by those who have survived (suicidal) hanging.

It is thought that brain death will occur in around six minutes and the heart will stop beating within 10-15 minutes.

Where the jugular veins are occluded before the carotid arteries, the face will typically become engorged and livid as the brain is filled with blood which cannot get back out. There will be the classic signs of petechiae - little blood marks on the face and in the eyes from burst blood capillaries due to excessive blood pressure in the head. The tongue may protrude due to the pressure of the noose on the base of it.

Where death has occurred through carotid/Vagal reflex, the face will typically be pale and bluish in colour and not show petechiae. In all cases there will normally be an inverted “V” mark where the knot of the noose was situated and the head will be forced over away from the knot.

When a person is hanged they may exhibit signs of physical struggling for some time after suspension, 1-3 minutes being normal. This is often followed by a quiescent phase before what can be described as the convulsive phase which it is thought occurs after consciousness has been lost.

There may be spasmodic and uncoordinated rippling movements of the limbs which occur for some time and which are usually attributed to nervous and muscular reflexes caused by the build up of carbon dioxide in the blood stream. Heaving of the chest is also reported.

The naked truth: Public execution in Iran, October 2004
You can read accounts of executions in the 18th/19th centuries where the person was said to be “greatly convulsed”  The legs were drawn up and their chests heaved but this does not necessarily indicate consciousness in the second phase.

Equally it was often reported that the prisoner died "almost without a struggle” and they would be seen to writhe in pain for just a few seconds, if at all, before going limp.

There exist many reports and pictures of actual short drop hangings which seem to show that the person died quickly and fairly peacefully, while others indicate a slow and possibly agonising death by asphyxiation.

An analysis of 46 recent public hangings in Iran that were legally and meticulously photographed at every stage by official news agency cameramen showed obvious physical struggling in 10 cases, the tongue protruding slightly in four cases, no obvious reddening of the face in any case, drooling from the mouth in two cases and what appears to be an erection and ejaculation in one case and ejaculation only in the second case.  In only one case was there evidence of urination and there were no apparent instances of defecation.

All of the prisoners were hanged using coiled nooses with the knot placed at the back of the neck, thus putting maximum pressure on the base of the tongue and the carotid arteries and jugular veins.

In a recent triple public hanging in Iran which was videoed the two male prisoners seemed to go limp as soon as they were hoisted into the air and showed no signs of physical struggle.  The third prisoner, a woman, struggled hard for approximately one minute before becoming still.

Short drop or suspension hanging is, at least initially, likely to be very painful as the person struggles to breathe against the compression of the noose and against the weight of their own body, being supported entirely by the neck and jaw. Houriyeh above exhibited very obvious sings of suffering.  While 1 to 3 minutes before unconsciousness sets in may not sound a long time it must feel like an eternity to the suspended and struggling prisoner.

It is sometimes possible to revive a person after short drop/suspension hanging and thus we can have an idea of what they felt. People who have survived hanging have described the pain diminishing after a while and seeing bright lights as they drift into unconsciousness.

An Iranian man identified only as Niazali, was hanged in February 1996 but survived after the victim's relatives pardoned him. He told the Iranian daily newspaper "Kayhan" what it had felt like.  "That first second lasted like a thousand years. I felt my arms and legs jerking out of control. Up on the gallows in the dark, I was trying to fill my lungs with air, but they were crumpled up like plastic bags." Niazali’s hanging reportedly lasted 20 minutes.

The "Long drop" or measured drop method

In 1872, William Marwood introduced the concept of an accurately calculated drop for the execution of Frederick Horry at Lincoln prison, as a scientifically worked out way of giving the prisoner a humane death.

This concept had been developed by doctors in Ireland and was in use there by the mid 1850’s. Longer drops were in use elsewhere by this time, e.g. in America, but the short drop was still used by many countries at this time e.g. Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland & Russia.

The long drop method was designed to break the prisoner’s neck by allowing them to fall a pre-determined distance and then be brought up with a sharp jerk by the rope.

At the end of the drop, the body is still accelerating under the force of gravity but the head is constrained by the noose.  If the eyelet is positioned under the left angle of the jaw it rotates the head backwards, which combined with the downward momentum of the body, breaks the neck and ruptures the spinal cord causing instant deep unconsciousness and rapid death.

The later use of the brass eyelet in the noose tended to break the neck with more certainty.  It is only in the last six inches or so of the drop that the physical damage to the neck and vertebrae occur as the rope constricts the neck and the force is applied to the vertebrae.

The duration of this part of the process is between 0.02 and 0.03 of a second depending upon the length of drop given.  Generally the diameter of the noose is found to have reduced some five to seven inches after the drop.

Execution in Kuwait, May 31, 2004
The accurately measured and worked out drop removed most of the prisoner's physical suffering and made the whole process far less traumatic for the officials who now had to witness it in the confines of the execution shed instead of in the open air.

The drop given in the later part of the 19th century was usually between 4 and 10 feet depending on the weight and strength of the prisoner.

The weight used to calculate the correct drop is that of the prisoner's clothed body. In accordance with the recommendations of the Aberdare Committee, from 1886 to 1892, the length of drop was calculated to provide a final "striking" force of approximately 1,260 ft. lbs. force which combined with the positioning of the eyelet caused fracture / dislocation of the neck, usually at the 2nd and 3rd or 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae. This is the classic "hangman's fracture".

The length of the drop was worked out by the formula 1,260 foot pounds divided by the body weight of the prisoner in pounds = drop in feet.

Between 1892 and 1913, a shorter length of drop was used, presumably to avoid the decapitation and near decapitations that had occurred with old table. The 1892 table produced a force of 840 ft. lbs.

However there are a number of properly documented instances of substantially longer drops being given during this period and it seems that this table was seldom adhered to.

After 1913, other factors were also taken into account and the drop was calculated to give a final "striking" force of around 1,000 ft. lbs.

The Home Office issued a rule restricting all drops to between 5 feet and 8 feet 6 inches as this had been found to be an adequate range. In Britain, the drop was worked out and set to the nearest half of an inch to ensure the desired outcome.

From around 1939 it became customary to add a further nine inches to the drop calculated from the 1913 table, to give a force of around 1100 ft. lbs..

The 1913 table is still used in Singapore and probably Malaysia and may have been adopted by other countries which use the British method, e.g. Australia, Canada, the Caribbean nations and Egypt.  Pakistan, India and Bangladesh use the measured long drop but it is not known whether they use the British drop tables.

It takes between a half and three quarters of a second for a person to reach the end of the rope after the trap opens, depending upon the length of drop given.

The force produced by the prisoner's body weight multiplied by the length of fall and the force of gravity (some 1,100 ft lbs being normal in the U.K. after 1939), coupled with the position of the noose is designed to violently jerk the person’s head backwards and sideways. In medical terms this is known as hyperflexion of the neck, which causes fracture-dislocation of the upper neck vertebrae, ideally between the C2 & C3 vertebrae, crushing or severing the spinal cord leading to immediate unconsciousness.  This leads to a number of factors, all of which can cause death.

Gallows at Tokyo Detention Center, Japan
The Phrenic nerve which controls the diaphragm emerges between the C3 and C4 vertebrae and thus if the fracture occurs above C4 the person's breathing ceases immediately, leading to asphyxia.  The rope constricts the carotid arteries and the jugular veins, with the same results described in “Short drop hanging” above.

Typically the neck is constricted by as much as five inches from its original circumference.  In some of the photos of Kuwaiti hangings the leather or rubber washer is visible on the rope and one can get a good idea of the amount of constriction of the neck, as it was against the eyelet before the hanging and is designed not to move.

Fractures of the hyoid bone and larynx typically occur which on their own can prove fatal as breathing is severely restricted or prevented.  The normal cause of death is given as comatose asphyxia.  Some slight movements of the limbs and body may occasionally occur but are almost certainly due to muscular reflexes.

In most countries cessation of heartbeat is the definition of death that is used in judicial hanging.  The typically occurs within 8-15 minutes after the drop. This time is very variable, however, with credible official reports of from 1-25 minutes for cessation of heartbeat to have occurred.  This time is often implied as length of suffering in newspaper reports of executions, but this is incorrect.

In 1887 Dr. Llewellyn A. Morgan, the medical officer of London’s Newgate prison, used a sphygmograph to record the pulses of three men hanged there that year, 41 year old Joseph King, 31 year old Thomas Currell and 22 year old Isreal Lipski.  This machine was attached to the prisoner’s wrist as quickly as possible after the drop and recorded their pulse on carbon paper.  The recordings show a rise in pulse rate initially and then a diminishing and weakening of it over time. 

In all three cases the men’s necks were broken.  19 year old Herbert Mills who was the last man to be hanged at Lincoln in 1951 is reported to have had heart action continue for 20 minutes after the drop fell.  Again there had been fracture dislocation of the neck vertebrae. 

It is thought that brain death will occur in around six minutes through lack of oxygen, irrespective of when the heart stops.

Sources: Herald Sun, 1986; Capital Punishment UKBoycott Singapore,  December 2, 2005

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but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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