Execute Cleanly or Not at All
Oklahoma's recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett has focused nationwide attention on capital punishment, and has evoked calls for its abolition. Death penalty opponents are correct when they say that botched executions violate the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Older methods like hanging and shooting are, when done properly, quick and humane. The kicker is the phrase "when done properly." The expert British hangman Albert Pierrepoint had to take over from the American hangman when the latter botched the executions of several Nazi war criminals.
The electric chair was, meanwhile, the culmination of Thomas Edison's psychological warfare campaign against George Westinghouse's alternating current. Edison favored direct current, which is much safer, but also far more costly to distribute. Edison nonetheless supplied New York with an alternating current generator so it could "Westinghouse" condemned prisoners.
Lethal injection was supposedly the answer, because most people who have been sedated for surgical procedures can attest that the first part is painless except for the negligible annoyance of the needle -- a needle substantially thinner than those used for blood donors. The kind of needle stick that almost everybody encounters during various medical procedures can hardly be called cruel or unusual.
As shown by Lockett's experience, though, it is possible to get it wrong. Many condemned murderers have compromised veins due to a long history of intravenous drug use, so the execution technicians have to probe for one. In addition, if the sedative does not work, the paralytic agent stops the inmate's breathing while he is still conscious. The pain and panic are similar what Stephanie Neiman felt when Lockett had his accomplices bury her alive. Some states use only a sedative overdose, but this does not eliminate the issue of finding a suitable vein.
The guillotine, which was invented specifically to eliminate foul-ups from the executioner's lack of skill and/or sobriety, is about the only existing execution method that will get it right every time. Nobody knows, however, whether the severed head can sense the trauma before consciousness is lost. This suggests a need for a method that is known to be so painless and trauma-free that it is among the most deadly workplace hazards: asphyxiation in an oxygen-deficient atmosphere. It is deadly precisely because it is painless and trauma-free; the victim doesn't know what is happening to him before it is too late.
Hypoxia; An Off-the-Shelf Solution
Nothing in this article constitutes engineering advice, which would have to be coupled with medical advice prior to implementation. I have, however, taught in-house industrial safety classes, including a portion on confined space entry procedures. The basic issue is that other gases, many of which are odorless, can displace the oxygen in a confined space. Among these is nitrogen, which constitutes 79 percent of what we breathe.
A worker who enters a confined without taking proper precautions finds himself breathing an atmosphere that lacks enough oxygen to sustain life, and soon collapses. Others find him, see no visible hazards to deter their own entry, and then die when they attempt a rescue.
People might ask up front whether a person who entered an oxygen-deficient atmosphere would feel like Stephanie Neiman felt after Clayton Lockett's accomplices buried her alive. Carbon dioxide, as opposed to lack of oxygen, tells our bodies to breathe. If somebody is buried alive, or the paralytic agent shuts down a condemned inmate's respiration while he is still conscious, the buildup of carbon dioxide will result in a desperate, and unfulfilled need to breathe. If, on the other hand, somebody walks into an oxygen-deficient atmosphere, he continues to exhale carbon dioxide. This is why confined spaces are so dangerous. The human body cannot sense lack of oxygen, so you have no hint that there is a problem until you are unconscious, whereupon it is too late to save yourself.
"Hazards of Nitrogen Asphyxiation" by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (csb.gov) elaborates,
Nitrogen is not a “poison” in the traditional sense. It presents a hazard when it displaces oxygen, making the atmosphere hazardous to humans. Breathing an oxygen deficient atmosphere can have serious and immediate effects, including unconsciousness after only one or two breaths. The exposed person has no warning and cannot sense that the oxygen level is too low.
A related hazard is shallow water blackout, which can be suffered by anybody who hyperventilates for the purpose of holding his or her breath for a long time. Instead of exhaling the oxygen in his blood into an oxygen-deficient atmosphere, the diver removes enough carbon dioxide from his blood to lose consciousness before he realizes that he needs to breathe.
On another note, when flight attendants talk about "sudden changes in cabin pressure," they mean explosive decompression. When the oxygen mask drops in front of you, you must put it on immediately. You have, at 35,000 feet, 30 to 60 seconds of useful consciousness. That drops to 6 to 9 seconds at 50,000 feet, although commercial airliners do not operate at this altitude.
This execution method could be even tried on volunteers, or inmates in exchange for reductions in their sentences, under carefully controlled conditions. Ten or fifteen seconds of hypoxia should render the subject unconscious without even approaching the time necessary to cause brain damage, after which he can report on the experience.
The only possible injustice in Clayton Lockett's sentence appears to be that Alfonzo Lockett and Shawn Mathis got life in prison rather than death for the same crime. It seems reasonable that accomplices who bury a human being alive is every bit as guilty as the one who shot her, unless they were acting under duress. The fact that they were convicted proves emphatically that they acted voluntarily. The bottom line is, however, that the State of Oklahoma should be up to performing an unpleasant task that countless veterinarians must perform every couple of weeks. If it can't handle lethal injection, it should investigate a humane alternative.
William A. Levinson, P.E. is the coauthor of The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford's Universal Code for World-Class Success, and author of other books on manufacturing and productivity.