Author Topic: Methods of capital punishment  (Read 5141 times)

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Offline Skjæve

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Methods of capital punishment
« on: June 16, 2009, 02:06:14 PM »
I would like to ask the skeptical panel to go through some myths surrounding the “mechanics” of capital punishment. Whether we believe this form of punishment is legitimate or not (a question outside the domain of science) there are some questions that are scientific regarding death by execution.

(I apologise for what is, in this day and age of the internets, an enormous block of text. TLDR: How can death be instant when the brain isn't touched?)

I believe I've read that the methods of capital punishment used by “civilized” nations today are guaranteed to cause instant and/or painless death, if carried out properly. Is this true, though? I can see several objections:

Firing squad: Being shot through the chest by several rifles will probably pulp your heart and lungs, leaving you to bleed to death, with unconsciousness probably following quite rapidly since fresh oxygenated blood no longer reaches the brain. If the spine is severed, the executed person may be unable to express pain, but probably has plenty to experience.

Decapitation: Since the brain is essentially unharmed, brain death would be caused by the draining of blood from the head. Unconsciousness would probably be rapid, but I can't see it being instant, and pain should be plentiful, given the wound surface still connected to the brain. And with every other nerve mechanically stimulated (i.e. severed), would phantom pain be present?

Hanging: Death by pure strangulation is obviously painful, put done properly a long-drop hanging should break the neck and sever the spinal cord, again leaving the executed unable to express pain. I don't see how death can be instant, or how instant unconsciousness can be assured.

Lethal injection: According to Wikipedia this method is the most used in USA, but it's not instant, and some still claim it's painful. Why is a poison cocktail used? Why not a very very large dose of morphine? Wouldn't that ensure the that the condemned died painlessly, or at least was absolutely unconscious while death was assured by other means?

Electrocution: As this method does directly and instantly affect the brain, it has a chance of being as instant as claimed, but does it in fact cause instant unconsciousness?

Offline Zeno Izen

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Re: Methods of capital punishment
« Reply #1 on: June 16, 2009, 03:34:22 PM »
Electrocution is likely the worst of them all.  The reason that lethal injection isn't a big dose of morphine is probably nothing more than puritanism.  In other words, the public at large most likely wouldn't support the idea of capital crimes being punished by getting the offender terminally high.

Though, isn't there some sort of anesthetic involved in the lethal injection?

And whatever happened to burning at the stake?  That's got to hurt.

Offline stickman

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Re: Methods of capital punishment
« Reply #2 on: June 16, 2009, 06:45:03 PM »
Strangely enough, the old Soviet technique of unexpectedly shooting the prisoner in the base of the skull while supposedly taking the prisoner somewhere is about the most humane method I've heard of.

Except, of course, if you know that this is the favored method of execution, every time your taken from your cell you'd fear you were about to be executed, making it a terribly cruel practice. 

Why don't we just forget i mentioned it.
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Offline Plasmodium vivax

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Re: Methods of capital punishment
« Reply #3 on: June 16, 2009, 07:44:19 PM »
If I had to choose, I would choose death by snu snu.

Failing that, firing squad or nitrogen asphyxiation.
Also, I shot magic into their chromosomes until they turned inside-out.  Evolution is my bitch.

Offline seaotter

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Re: Methods of capital punishment
« Reply #4 on: June 16, 2009, 08:15:48 PM »
Wood chipper.
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Offline noisician

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Re: Methods of capital punishment
« Reply #5 on: June 17, 2009, 11:51:52 PM »
If you have to use capital punishment, and if you use lethal injection, I can't imagine why it's so hard to anesthetize the person before poisoning him. Surgeons routinely cut people open in ways that would be unbearably painful without proper anesthesia.

It should really not be that hard to make lethal injection basically painless.

So I am skeptical when I hear that the lethal injection drugs or procedures currently used can cause large amounts of pain. The story is that there are three drugs (anesthetic, paralytic, poison) but that the anesthetic can wear off before the person dies, leaving him paralyzed and in pain.

This would mean that somebody is really sadistic or incompetent.

Two simple solutions that may work: (1) don't use paralytic at all. What's the point, to make the killing look more serene for the witnesses? The person is going to be strapped to a gurney anyway, and if the anesthetic starts wearing off, you'll know right away and up the dose. (2) figure out the right dose of anesthetic, then double or triple it or whatever.

In any case, I am opposed to capital punishment on moral grounds.

Whether we believe this form of punishment is legitimate or not (a question outside the domain of science) ...

Sorry to go off your topic a bit, but I think that determining the "legitimacy" of capital punishment is not entirely outside the realm of science. Science can at least INFORM your decision on this question.

The question does need to be framed carefully first, and science may not be able to help with that.

But if "legitimate punishment" means "good crime deterrent" or "minimal cruelty" or "to the benefit of the greater good" then science can probably at least help you get to a good answer.

If "legitimate" means "aligned with religious doctrine X or philosophy X" then science may be of less help, but may still be able to provide data as inputs if needed.

Or of course, if we refuse to define "legitimate" then it will be difficult to get anywhere with science or not!

« Last Edit: June 18, 2009, 12:18:44 AM by noisician »