With a scarcity of lethal injection drugs, South Carolina has brought back an archaic execution method. In other states, men on death row are asking for it.
“It’s an almost instantaneous death, it’s the cheapest, it’s the simplest, it has the lowest ‘botch’ rate,” said Corinna Lain, a law professor at the University of Richmond. (Federal judges have made similarpoints.) At the same time, it’s “more honest,” she said. Lain and other scholars have argued that Americans have long wanted — not always consciously — to disguise the violence of capital punishment. “We don’t want a mess,” wrote Douglas B. Kamerow, a former assistant surgeon general, in The BMJ, a medical journal published by the British Medical Association. “We want these evil people to disappear, to be dead, but most of us don’t want to feel bad about how they died.”
At one time, Americans didn’t seem to feel so bad about the firing squad. Numerous men were executed this way during the Civil War, and soon after, the Supreme Court approved of the method. In the 1930s, a Utah prisoner named John Deering allowed a doctor to hook him up to an electrocardiogram as he faced the guns, and his heart stopped in 15.6 seconds. (Even when nothing goes wrong in a lethal injection, the process takes minutes.)