US executions go from town square to behind bars

AP News
Posted: May 23, 2012 3:13 AM
US executions go from town square to behind bars

America's executions have changed dramatically over the years, morphing from daylong events in the town square to somber and tightly controlled affairs held deep inside prisons.

Driving the change was the quest for a less gruesome _ even less painful _ method of execution.

Along the way, the public saw less of what happens when the state puts an inmate to death.

Today, nearly all of the 34 states that use lethal injection restrict access to half of every execution, shielding from view the portion when the condemned enters the death chamber and the IV lines are inserted.

In early America, hanging was the standard.

Typically, hundreds of spectators would pack the town square or hanging ground, bringing picnics and listening to sermons, said Trina Seitz, a death penalty expert at Appalachian State University.

By the 1800s, politicians were growing concerned that the atmosphere had grown too festive.

Spectators sometimes got more violence than they bargained for. If the hanging rope was too short, the condemned would slowly suffocate. If it was too long, he would be beheaded.

Starting in the 1820s, states began moving hangings inside prison yards.

Over the following decades, another development began to affect the way people viewed pain: anesthesia.

Doctors were using it to keep their patients from feeling pain, and that made them used to the idea that pain was avoidable, said Stuart Banner, a legal historian and professor with UCLA's School of Law.

And that made it more difficult for people to watch others dying in painful ways, he said.

The search for a less painful way to die was on.

When Thomas Edison patented a system to distribute electricity in 1880, death penalty proponents pushed electrocution as a painless death and states began to adopt the electric chair.

The new technology meant executions needed to be moved indoors, said Seitz, because it would be dangerous to execute someone using electricity in a rainy prison courtyard.

Reporters were among the witnesses and could describe the deaths to the public.

The electric chair, however, brought a new kind of botched execution, with some condemned inmates catching fire and others surviving the first jolt of electricity.

Still seeking a less gruesome method, several states used the gas chamber or a firing squad.

Today, lethal injection is the most prevalent method in the U.S. Like other methods, it too has drawn criticism, including whether the lethal drugs are effective and whether the execution staff is properly trained.