Hang 'em High: The Needle is Too Good for the Killers
by Bill Russo
PREFACE: This article is not concerned with whether Capital Punishment should be banned, reformed, or expanded. That is a debate for another piece.
This sole purpose of this work is to decide whether Lethal Injection meets the criteria for 'Cruel and Unusual Punishment'. The lurid title serves only to draw the reader in, and should not be construed as the opinion of the author.
The Eighth Amendment, forbidding exorbitant bail and 'cruel and unusual punishment', is a part of the "Bill of Rights".
Chief among the provisions in this packet of the first ten amendments to the constitution are: The right to bear arms, to free assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech.
These measures were ratified during the barbarous 1700s when cruelty abounded on a scale that people of the 2000s can scarcely imagine.
Lets look at the principal forms of execution of the period.
BURNING AND GIBBETING: In the early 1700s, a man history records only as "Indian Sam" and an unnamed woman were put to death for the murders of prominent Queens landowner William Hallet, his wife and at least one child.
The woman was burned alive. As bad as that was, the guilty man suffered worse. He was hanged in gibbets (meaning in full view of the public) with a blade or spike positioned to torment him as he twisted.
BREAKING WHEEL: Just like it sounds. The prisoner was strapped to a wagon wheel which was set flat across two sturdy beams. A heavy sledgehammer or a large iron bar was used to fracture the limbs at multiple locations. The spaces between the wheel vastly compounded the damage as they let the hammer make the breaks even more severe. The unfortunate criminal was left to expire, which could take up to three days.
BLUDGEONING: Similar to the wheel. The condemned was simply smashed to death. This could involve destroying the extremities and leaving the person to suffer a lingering death; or if the executioner wished a more compassionate death, the victim was manually strangled after the bone breaking. Sometimes death would be induced more speedily with a crushing blow to the chest.
Other gruesome methods sometimes used in executions were quartering, boiling, disembowelment, public dissection, crushing, The Firing Squad, and most commonly, hanging.
Hanging has four main variations. Even in the most 'humane' style of hanging, the end of life can sometimes come at the expense of protracted suffering.
In the 'Suspension' and 'Short Drop' forms, death is by strangulation. It is always brutal with maximum twisting and agonizing for up to twenty minutes.
In the 'Standard' and 'Long Drop' versions, the condemned person drops a longer distance before the noose springs taut. The intention is to break the neck and cause a much quicker, almost instant, death. One of the several complications that can arise, is decapitation of the criminal. Other problems involve the neck failing to snap - leaving the person to die through the extended strangulation process.
These then, were the punishments in use on December 5, 1791 when the 13 original states, plus Vermont (which became a state in March of that year), ratified the Bill of Rights.
Clearly, it was the intent of the Congress to ban the more barbarous forms of execution that did little more than torture the prisoner to death.
Take the Poll or Just View the Results:
Regardless of whether you favor the Death Penalty, which form of Execution do you prefer the States to use?.See results without voting
Is Lethal Injection 'Cruel & Unusual Punishment'?
Lets compare those killing styles of the 18th. century to Lethal Injection:
The condemned is recumbent, strapped to a cot-like device called a gurney.
Administered via a needle; is a deadly cocktail of sedatives, a paralytic, and a potassium solution. The desired result is a rapid death with little or no pain. The injection kills the person by first inducing sleep, and then stopping the breathing and heart.
There have been a number of cases where death has taken much longer than expected. Some people have said that some of the criminals were not properly sedated. Others place the blame on the difficulty of obtaining the required chemicals. There are those who argue that even though the victims seem to be suffering, they are sedated and not feeling pain.
Regardless of where one stands on that issue; it cannot be argued that the person being executed is in far less agony than those individuals executed by the means commonly used in the brutal 1700s.
It is logical to assume that if the crafters of the Bill of Rights had knowledge of Lethal Injection, they would have designated it as the recommended (and perhaps the required) mode of capital punishment.
Kevin Barry: Born in Dublin in 1902
The Firing Squad
I wonder why the firing squad was not used more often than it was. It seems like a quicker, easier and more humane solution than anything else that was used in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Perhaps it's because death by the firing squad has been considered honorable and reserved mostly for soldiers. Enemy warriors had to die, but were afforded a measure of respect and dignity.
Perhaps a 'civilized' society feels that shooting is too good an ending for convicted killers.
I remember Pete Seeger, fervently singing the touching folk song Kevin Barry. A young Irish lad, the brave Barry was just eighteen when he was captured and hanged.
“Shoot me like an Irish Soldier, do not hang me like a dog. For I fought for Irish Freedom on that bright September morn.”
Here are more of the lyrics to the song.......
Mountjoy jail one morning, high above the gallows tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life for the cause of liberty
Just a lad of eighteen summers yet there's no one can deny
As he marched to death that morning, he proudly held his head on high
Just before he faced the hangman in his dreary prison cell
British soldiers tortured Barry because he would not tell.
The names of his brave comrades and other things they wished to know
"Turn informer and we'll free you". Kevin Barry answered "no".
Calmly standing to attention while he bade his last farewell
To his broken-hearted mother whose sad grief no-one can tell
For the cause he proudly cherished, this sad parting had to be
Then to death he walked softly smiling that old Ireland might be free
Another martyr for old Ireland, another murder for the crown,
Whose brutal laws may kill the Irish, but can't keep their spirits down
Lads like Barry are no cowards, for the cause they will not lie
Lads like Barry will free Ireland, for her sake we'll live and die.
Born in Dublin on January 20, 1902, Kevin Barry, joined Feinna hEreann after hearing about the death of Thomas Ashe from being force fed while being on hunger strike,
The 18 year old student joined the First Battalion of the Irish volunteers. Early in the morning of September 20, he took part in an ambush on British soldiers at the junction of North King St. and Church Street.
The other nine got away but Kevin was wounded, captured, and sentenced to hang.
“Tell us who your mates are, and we won't kill you”, said they.
"NO", said Kevin.
Hanged in the hang man's yard of the prison, he was buried within its walls. No members of his family were permitted to attend the funeral.
The Irish Brigade Salutes Kevin Barry
More by this Author
From humble beginnings in Northern Maine, Dick Curlesss rose to the top of the Nashville heap with the truckin' classic "Tombstone Every Mile".
A young country musician is offered a three year deal from a Nashville record company...but he has to leave home & tour Europe and Australia. He's torn between family & wanting to succeed in music.
Update on eerie creature sightings and the film and TV documentaries about haunted New England