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The former State of Louisiana execution chamber at the Red Hat Cell Block in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, West Feliciana Parish. The electric chair is a replica of the original. Photo by Lee Honeycutt from Angola, Louisiana.

Instruments of death

Can there be a ‘humane’ execution?

Americans’ support for capital punishment has waned for a number of reasons: concern that wrongfully convicted persons may be executed; doubts that the death penalty acts as a deterrent; worries about economic and racial biases in capital cases; and concerns about the financial costs involved.

The focus has shifted recently to the methods of execution. In July, it took nearly two hours for Arizona inmate Joseph Woods to die by lethal injection, and observers repeatedly heard him gasp for air. In late April, Oklahoma prison officials had to stop the process of killing Clayton Lockett by lethal injection because of “vein failure.” Lockett was observed writhing and trying to speak 14 minutes into the process, and he died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began. At an execution in Ohio in January, Dennis McGuire appeared to gasp for breath several times during the 25 minutes it took for an untested two-drug cocktail to cause his death.


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