Currently 58 nations actively practice it, and 95 countries have abolished it. The following are the most common methods of capital punishment in American History.
Lethal Injection: State laws provide: “The punishment of death must be inflicted by continuous, intravenous administration of a lethal quantity of an ultrashort-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic agent until death is pronounced by a licensed physician according to accepted standards of medical practice.”
The protocol for lethal injection includes three separate injections: sodium thiopental or sodium pentothal (rendering the individual unconscious); pancuronium bromide (a muscle relaxer and paralytic agent); and potassium chloride (causing cardiac arrest). Notwithstanding this trifecta of injections, each by itself is lethal.
In 1888, lethal injection was first considered (but rejected) in New York. In 1977, Oklahoma became the first state to use lethal injection. Texas had the first execution in 1982. Today, 16 states and the federal government authorize lethal injection as the only way to enforce the death penalty, and 20 other states as the primary method of execution. Between 1976 and 2008, approximately 85% of executions were by lethal injection.
Electrocution: By law this method provides: “The sentence shall be executed by causing to pass through the body of the convict a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death, and the application and continuance of such current through the body of such convict shall continue until such convict is dead.”
Death by electrocution typically requires the use of a wooden chair with restraints and connections to an electric current. The cycle for electrocution starts with about 2,300 volts (9.5 amps) for eight seconds, followed by 1,000 volts (4 amps) for 22 seconds, followed by 2,300 volts (9.5 amps) for eight seconds. Complications are not uncommon.
New York was the first state to use this method in 1888. It was the most common method of execution between 1930 and 1980. Today, only Nebraska uses electrocution as the sole method of execution, and 9 other states provide this option. Between 1976 and 2008, 14.0% of executions were by electrocution.
Lethal Gas: State laws provide: “The punishment of death must be inflicted by the administration of a lethal gas.”
This method uses a steel airtight execution chamber, equipped with a chair and attached restraints. Cyanide pellets are placed in a container beneath the chair. Death generally occurs between 6 and 18 minutes. Finding its origin in World War I, Nevada was the first state to use this method in 1924. Before 1999 when it was no longer used, this method was used 31 times.
Hanging: Hanging is the oldest method of execution in the United States, but there have been only three executions by hanging since 1977. It is the lethal suspension of a person by a ligature.
Firing Squad: The traditional firing squad is made up of three to six shooters per prisoner. Shooters typically aim at the chest. The Utah statute provides: “If the judgment of death is to be carried out by shooting, the executive director of the department or his designee shall select a five-person firing squad of peace officers.”
In recent history only two people have been executed by firing squad (1977 and 1996, both in Utah). Only 3 states (Idaho, Oklahoma, and Utah) currently authorize shooting as a method of execution.