The death penalty remains one of the most controversial topics in modern times. Much of the developed world – including Australia, New Zealand, every EU nation except Belarus and 22 of the 50 US states – has abolished the practice.
Whether or not it is inhumane or deters heinous crimes, the death penalty has always provided intriguing details along with heated debate. Legal executions create a macabre subculture and, right or wrong, bring with them fascinating circumstances and stories.
What’s Next? The Future of Executions
Today, lethal injection is by far the most commonly employed execution method. However, ongoing shortages of the drugs typically used for the practice have led some to experiment with alternatives. The result has been a slate of botched executions, including one that took two hours and 640 gasps before the inmate died.
This has prompted efforts to explore new alternatives. One possibility is nitrogen hypoxia, which replaces air with an inert gas like nitrogen or helium. The idea initially gained traction after a BBC documentary presented by former UK Parliament member Michael Portillo called it “a perfect killing device” in a widely viewed BBC documentary.
Air is 78% nitrogen, so it’s an easily obtainable gas, and nitrogen hypoxia is typically quick: a study during the 1960s found breathing pure nitrogen resulted in lost consciousness in about 20 seconds.
Last Look: Watching the Condemned Die
Often, an inmate sentenced to die goes from a death watch to a death watch party.
While public executions in developed nations are a thing of the past – for example, the US hasn’t held one since 1936 – many execution sites still have watch rooms where a select few can bear witness to an inmate’s demise.
In the US, exactly who can be present at the bitter end varies by state but, in general, the list is surprisingly lengthy. In addition to the prison warden, corrections officers and medical personnel, witnesses to executions frequently include certain state officials, members of the media, religious leaders and/or spiritual advisors and a purposefully vague category called an official group of “reputable citizens.”
Another thing death row inmates have plenty of time to consider is their final meal.
A review of last meals through the years shows that inmates tend to favor A LOT of food over particularly fancy ones. In 2011, Steven Woods ordered up “two pounds of bacon, a large four-meat pizza, four fried chicken breasts, two drinks each of Mountain Dew, Pepsi, root beer, and sweet tea, two pints of ice cream, five chicken fried steaks, two hamburgers with bacon, fries, and a dozen garlic bread sticks with marinara on the side.”
Red meat, fries and ice cream all seem to be popular last meal selections. After all, they’re there to die, not diet. Still, some last meals are strikingly simple. Aileen Wuomos requested a black coffee, while Karla Faye Tucker chose to keep her girlish figure for all eternity by ordering “a garden salad with Ranch style dressing, a banana and a peach.”
Last Word Freaks
When your publicly recorded death is scheduled well in advance, you have ample time to concoct some memorable parting thoughts.
The last words of death row inmates range from maniacal to mundane. On the batshit crazy side of the spectrum, in 2002 #FloridaWoman and apparent Will Smith fan Aileen Wuornos confidently remarked that “I’d just like to say I’m sailing with the Rock and I’ll be back like ‘Independence Day’ with Jesus, June 6, like the movie, big mother ship and all.” Fifteen years earlier, in Louisiana, Jimmy Glass was less enthusiastic about the end-of-life endeavor, simply sharing “I’d rather be fishing.”
Put to death in Oklahoma in 2011, Jeffrey Matthews had either a really excellent sense of humor or a really poor IQ: “I think that governor’s phone is broke,” he stated, referring to the possibility of a last-minute stay of execution. “He hasn’t called yet.” In 1995, Thomas Grasso wanted the world to know about his alleged last meal mix-up: “I did not get my Spaghetti-O’s. I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this.” Duly noted, good sir.
Stone Cold Bigotry
And the award for most disgusting execution protocol goes to: Brunei, for its recently adopted law that punishes adultery and sodomy with death… by STONING. In doing so, Brunei triumphantly joined beacons of enlightenment Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Mauritania, Nigeria and Somalia as countries where same-sex relationships can bring the death penalty.
Stoning – known as lapidation by more well-heeled rock-hurling enthusiasts – is the death penalty version of a dunk tank. The victim is made stationary, typically by burying all but his head underground, while aspiring relief pitchers throw fastballs at his head. It’s basically how people killed each other before they discovered fire and tools, which actually aligns well with Brunei’s general level of sophistication.