American Executions in Context

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Introduction

Later this month, the Supreme Court will consider whether a drug used in executions, midazolam hydrochloride, violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The sedative was administered in the botched and prolonged 2014 executions of inmates Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Joseph Rudolph Wood III in Arizona. Midazolam is intended to anesthetize subjects from paralysis caused by a second drug (usually pancuronium bromide or vercuronium bromide) and the excruciating burning sensation caused by a third drug, potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Recently, it has also been used in a two-drug procedure with hydromorphone, which stops respiration and heartbeat.

The death penalty is prohibited in 19 states and the District of Columbia. In April, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed a law permitting nitrogen gas as a new execution procedure, which proponents say is painless and humane, although it has not yet been tested on humans. On May 27, the Nebraska Legislature repealed the death penalty by overriding a repeal veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Fourteen people have been put to death this year, reflecting a steady drop in the total since 2009. However, since 2007, the United States has executed the fifth-highest number of people in the world behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq but ahead of Yemen, Pakistan, and North Korea.

American execution methods have changed over time. Hanging dominated for much of the country’s history, but technological advances at the turn of the 20th century led to innovations such as electrocution, the gas chamber, and lethal injection. Each new method was purported to be more effective, just, or humane, but all have met with controversies that have repeatedly reached the highest court in the nation.

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