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The Electric Chair, Coming Back

Doug Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy has this entry: "Tennessee Adopts Electric Chair as Back-up Execution Method."

What I found most interesting was the margin by which this bill passed in the state legislature  --  with the Senate voting 23-3 and the House 68-13 in favor. Lopsided votes like that make it impossible for opponents to argue that the citizens of Tennessee oppose either the death penalty or this particular method of imposing it. As recent polling has shown, abolitionism is headed toward fringe-group territory, although it has a ways yet to go.

One other thing I take from this story is that the idea that some gimmick, like foreign suppliers refusing to sell the needed drugs, or medical associations admonishing members against participating in executions, simply are not going to work.

Nor should they.  In working democracies, majority votes trump minority gimmicks.


I don't know what prevents consideration of the guillotine in the various states. It is absolutely the quickest, most humane way to perform an execution. The electric chair is painful, gruesome and undignified for the condemned.

While the guillotine would win the quickness contest, the most humane, simple and foolproof execution would be nitrogen gas. A breathing mask, a tube and a tank of nitrogen gas (available everywhere)is all that is needed. A guard puts the mask on the murderer, turns the valve on the tank, and the killer is fast asleep in about a minute. Dead in ten minutes. No blood, no needles, no doctors, no questions about pain, no shortages or boycotts, no twitching around or coughing, no danger to observers or guards. Just a boring few minutes of watching a murderer fall asleep.

Sometimes your allies are as much of a problem as your opponents. Any attempt to bring back the electric chair in practice, other than for "volunteers," will immediately be mired in litigation. Louisiana is looking seriously at gas, and that is what other states looking for alternatives should be doing as well.

I have a science question - the old school gas chamber asphyxiated the condemned via some sort of cyanide compound, right? And presumably this could be pretty painful.

Why is asphyxiation via nitrogen or carbon monoxide not painful?

I think for the same reason that killing yourself with an overdose of sleeping pills is not painful: You're completely out when the organs fail and breathing stops.

That's an educated guess, but just a guess.

Asphyxiation via nitrogen is not painful because it is an inert gas, it's not a poison. It just replaces the oxygen in one's lungs. The subject does not gasp for breath because he's breathing in nitrogen gas. I don't know about these days, but in the past, every member of an air force flight crew was trained not to take off their mask at altitude because, while you can still breath without the mask, there is so little oxygen that you black out in minutes, and will die unless the mask goes back on. On the other hand, carbon monoxide is a poison, but it is undetectable. About 400 people die of carbon monoxide poisoning each year, most accidently. They just go to sleep.

Makes sense now that I think about it - since our atmosphere is 80% nitrogen, every breath we take (hat tip to the Police) is 80% nitrogen, so replacing the 20% oxygen part with nitrogen basically just tricks the body, so no pain is felt.

Not really relevant but I'd assume a good portion of the CO poisonings are suicides.

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