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The South Asian Insider

Pure nitrogen to firing squad, ways in which US carries out executions

Alabama is set to become the first state in the United States to carry out an execution by making a prisoner breathe pure nitrogen. The method -- nitrogen hypoxia - is one of the half dozen methods approved to carry out death sentences in the US.
In India, the death penalty is awarded for "rarest of rare" crimes. The last executions were carried out in India in March 2020, when four convicts in the Nirbhaya 2012 gangrape case were hanged.
The government had in May told the Supreme Court that it was in the process of constituting a committee to examine less painful methods of execution of the death penalty in India.
As for the US, 17 prisoners have been executed in 2023, according to the Washington, DC-based Death Penalty Information Center.
But here come the hows and the whys.
Twenty-seven American states permit executions, but of them, seven have put a hold on carrying them out. Of the 20 states that carry out the death sentence, the lethal injection method is approved in all.But here comes the first why - Why do those states need alternative methods to execute prisoners? Then comes the question, how did these methods come to be used?
Alabama's move to use nitrogen hypoxia for execution comes amid ongoing debates and controversies surrounding the methods of capital punishment in the United States. Hypoxia means a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues.
There is also a huge debate about whether death sentences need to be carried out at all in the civilized world.
Support for the death penalty among Americans is at near-historic lows after peaking in the mid-1990s, according to Death Penalty Information Center. In 2021, polls indicated the support for executions hovering around 55 per cent. A Pew Research Center report published in 2021 said 60 per cent of American adults favoured the death penalty for people convicted of murder.
The Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization that provides analysis and information about capital punishment, has identified several methods of execution currently authorised across various American states. These include lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, hanging, and firing squad.Lethal injection is the most widely-used method, adopted first by Oklahoma in 1977 due to its perceived cost-effectiveness and humanity compared to electrocution or lethal gas. Thirteen states and the US Military solely use lethal injection.However, other methods are still authorised in certain states.Tennessee, Utah, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama authorise alternative methods if lethal injection is deemed unconstitutional or unavailable. In Florida, prisoners can choose electrocution, while South Carolina and Virginia allow prisoners to choose between lethal injection and electrocution. Arizona, California, and Washington provide lethal injection unless the inmate requests lethal gas or hanging.While state-level executions have decreased, the federal government put more prisoners to death under President Donald Trump than at any point since the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, according to Pew Research.
The history of capital punishment in the US dates back to 1608 when Captain George Kendall was executed by firing squad for spying on behalf of the Spanish government. Over the years, the methods of execution have evolved, with some states abolishing the death penalty altogether.
However, the methods of execution have not been without controversy. Major arguments against the death penalty focus on its inhumaneness, lack of deterrent effect, continuing racial and economic biases, and irreversibility.
A majority of Americans believe that neither is the death penalty applied in a racially neutral way, nor does it deter people from committing serious crimes. Fifty-six per cent of Americans said Black people are more likely than Whites to be sentenced to death for committing similar crimes, according to the Pew Research report of 2021. Sixty-three per cent said it did not prevent serious crimes.
But proponents argue that it represents just retribution for certain offences, deters crime, protects society, and preserves the moral order.
Botched executions, where there is a breakdown in the protocol for a particular method of execution, have also raised concerns about the death penalty's application. The US Supreme Court has never found a method of execution to be unconstitutional, though some methods have been declared unconstitutional by state courts.
In the United States, hanging was the most common method of execution before 1890. Why hanging ran into controversy was for instances where inmates were strangled for several minutes or had their heads severed due to a fall.
In 1890, New York adopted electrocution, a less humane alternative to hanging. The voltage amount, frequency of shocks, and duration of the process vary by jurisdiction. Multiple shocks are often given to ensure death, with brief pauses to prevent burning. It's uncertain if the shock induces unconsciousness or just paralysis.
Electrocution primarily leads to cardiac arrest, possibly causing brain death too.
Nevada developed the gas chamber as a purportedly humane method of execution in the 1920s. However, it immediately ran into serious problems. The fact that the prisoners asphyxiate while they are fully conscious made this method infamous.
A sentenced person's request led to the use of this method in Utah as recently as 2010. The prisoner was confined to a chair and a target made of fabric was placed over the heart. When the target is hit by a shooter, the heart bursts, causing significant blood loss and quick death. In case the death is not immediate, the inmate dies due to prolonged blood loss.
While hanging by rope is the popular method of execution in India, Indian laws also allow a death-row convict to be shot dead by a firing squad. This is however allowed in limited circumstances and can be carried out only by the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.
Lethal injection, which was first used in Oklahoma in 1977, has become the execution technique of choice in US states that still allow the death penalty.
In most cases, inmates are restrained to a medical bed, where a series of medications are administered by inserting needles into their veins.
All states used a three-drug combination up until 2009, which included a sedative, a paralyzing agent, and a last deadly medication to stop the heart.
States have begun to investigate other methods as a result of medicine shortages and legal challenges suggesting that the paralytic component may hide an inmate's suffering. Some jurisdictions use a one-drug approach that involves using an excessive amount of a sedative.
Despite lethal injections being considered the most compassionate execution technique, states had to resort to alternatives as pharmaceutical companies refused to supply the drugs for executions. The companies in the 2000s began banning the use of their drugs for executions, saying they were meant to save lives, not to kill people.
The other reason why American states seek an alternative to the lethal injection is that executions have been stalled multiple times as teams were unable to find a suitable vein in the death-row inmates.
This is the very reason why Alabama is planning to use nitrogen hypoxia.
Alabama attempted to execute 58-year-old Kenneth Eugene Smith by lethal injection last year, but called off the execution because of problems inserting an IV into his veins, according to an Associated Press report.
That is why it now wants to try nitrogen hypoxia, a method approved by three American states but never resorted to. Other than Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi too have approved nitrogen hypoxia.
In this method, a person is executed by being forced to breathe pure nitrogen. The air that we breathe consists 78 per cent of nitrogen but it is safe when combined with oxygen. Opponents of the process have likened it to "human experimentation".
As Alabama considers the use of nitrogen hypoxia, it remains to be seen how this will impact the ongoing debate on capital punishment in the United States.