Forms of Execution in the United States, 1977 - 2009


The following chart lists methods of execution in the US from 1977 to 2009. We started in 1977 because that was when Oklahoma became the first state to authorize lethal injection - currently the most common form of execution. For information about executions prior to 1977, visit our resource "US Executions from 1608-2002: A Demographic Breakdown of the Executed Population."

Number of Persons Executed by Method and Race / Ethnicity, 1977-2009
Method of Execution White* Black* Hispanic Indian* Asian* Total # Total %
Lethal Injection 576 338 89 7 6 1,016 85.5
Electrocution 83 70 2 1 0 156 13.1
Gas Chamber 8 3 0 0 0 11 0.9
Hanging 3 0 0 0 0 3 0.3
Firing Squad 2 0 0 0 0 2 0.2
Total # 672 411 91 8 6 1,188  
Total % 56.6 34.6 7.6** 0.7 0.5   100

Source: US Department of Justice (USDOJ) US Bureau of Justice Statistics (USBJS) , "Capital Punishment, 2009 - Statistical Tables - Number of Persons Executed by Race, Hispanic Origin, and Method, 1977-2009," Dec. 2, 2010
Notes:
* Excludes persons of Hispanic origin.
** Actual percentage of 7.66 was rounded down to 7.6 to ensure that the total percentage of executions by race/ethnicity added up to 100. All other percentages were rounded to the nearest tenth.


Estimated Time of Death from Various Execution Methods
Lethal Injection 5 min to 2 hours
Gas Chamber 10 to 18 minutes
Hanging 4 to 11 minutes
Electric Chair 2 to 15 plus minutes
Firing Squad Less than a minute
Guillotine Less than a minute
Source: Tracy Connor, "Firing Squad to Gas Chamber: How Long Do Executions Take?," nbcnews.com, Mar. 25, 2015


Lethal Injection:

In Baze v. Rees (No. 07-5439), decided 8-1 on Apr. 16, 2008, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito, wrote in their concurrent opinion:

Lethal Injection Chamber
Lethal injection chamber
"In 1977, legislators in Oklahoma, after consulting with the head of the anesthesiology department at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, introduced the first bill proposing lethal injection as the State’s method of execution. A total of 36 States have now adopted lethal injection as the exclusive or primary means of implementing the death penalty, making it by far the most prevalent method of execution in the United States. Twenty-seven of the 36 States that currently provide for capital punishment require execution by lethal injection as the sole method. It is also the method used by the Federal Government. Of these 36 States, at least 30... use the same combination of three drugs in their lethal injection protocols.

The first drug, sodium thiopental (also known as Pentathol), is a fast-acting barbiturate sedative that induces a deep, comalike unconsciousness when given in the amounts used for lethal injection. The second drug, pancuronium bromide (also known as Pavulon), is a paralytic agent that inhibits all muscular-skeletal movements and, by paralyzing the diaphragm, stops respiration. Potassium chloride, the third drug, interferes with the electrical signals that stimulate the contractions of the heart, inducing cardiac arrest. The proper administration of the first drug ensures that the prisoner does not experience any pain associated with the paralysis and cardiac arrest caused by the second and third drugs."

Apr. 16, 2008 - Baze v. Rees





Kevin Bonsor, Marketing Manager for IP Solutions at Thomson Reuters and former News Editor for How Stuff Works, wrote the following in a May 10, 2001 USA Today article titled "Methods of Execution Have Changed with the Times":

"Lethal injection is the world's newest method of execution, and is quickly becoming the most common one. In 1982, the United States became the first country to use lethal injection as a means of carrying out capital punishment.

Lethal injection was originally proposed as a means of execution in 1888 in New York, but the state chose electrocution instead. In 1977, Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal-injection legislation. Five years later, Texas performed the first execution by lethal injection...

While a lethal-injection machine exists, and was once used by several states, most states now opt to perform the injections manually due to the fear of mechanical failure. Most states use an execution team, typically comprised of prison employees. Some states use the same personnel for every execution, while others rotate the duty among several employees.

The execution team is either in a separate room or behind a curtain and cannot be seen by witnesses or the condemned. In some cases, the executioners may wear a hood to conceal their identity. At the warden's signal, the execution team will begin injecting lethal doses of two or three drugs into the IVs. Some states use multiple executioners, all of whom inject drugs into an IV tube — but only one of the executioners is actually delivering the lethal injection. None of the executioners know who has delivered the lethal dose and who has injected drugs into a dummy bag."

May 10, 2001 - Kevin Bonsor





Teresa A. Zimmers, PhD, Research Assistant Professor at the Dewitt Daughtry Family Department of Surgery Cell Biology & Anatomy of the University of Miami, et. al, in a 2007 Public Library of Science article titled "Lethal Injection for Execution: Chemical Asphyxiation?" wrote:

"The origin of the lethal injection protocol can be traced to legislators in Oklahoma searching for a less expensive and potentially more humane alternative to the electric chair. Both the state medical examiner and a chairman of anesthesiology appear to have been consulted in writing of the statute.

The medical examiner has since indicated that no research went into his choice of drugs—thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride—but rather he was guided by his own experience as a patient. His expectation was that the inmate would be adequately anesthetized, and that although each individual drug would be lethal in the dosage specified, the combination would provide redundancy. The anesthesiologist's input relating to thiopental was written into law as 'the punishment of death must be inflicted by continuous, intravenous administration of a lethal quantity of an ultra-short-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic agent.'"

2007 - Teresa A. Zimmers, PhD





Electrocution:

Tom Head, Civil Liberties Guide at About.com, in an About.com - Civil Liberties section article titled "History of the Electric Chair," (accessed Aug. 15, 2011), wrote:

Electric Chair
Electric chair
"In 1881, capital punishment was in common use in the United States--but that usually meant hanging, or occasionally a firing squad. Enter New York dentist Albert Southwick, who saw an old drunk accidentally electrocute himself on a power generator with no visible pain. He told a friend in the legislature, and the idea of executing people using the modern marvel of electricity began to take hold... Southwick soon became part of a New York legislative panel charged with the goal of eliminating gruesome forms of execution by replacing them with electrocution...

The forerunner of commercial electricity was Thomas Edison, whose direct current (DC) approach was safer than George Westinghouse's newer alternating current (AC) technology--but inferior in every other discernible respect. To protect the safety of the American public (and his commercial interests), Edison held a demonstration in which he used a 1,000-volt alternating current generator to kill cats, dogs, and a large horse. [He also electrocuted an elephant as seen in this video from Jan. 4, 1903]. Waiting in the wings were legislators eager to adopt Southwick's vision of a humane, electricity-based form of execution...

In 1888, before the electric chair had technically been invented, the State of New York added Chapter 489 to its state code--establishing electrocution as the state's official execution method. [In] 1889, William Kemmler... was sentenced to die... in Auburn Prison's electric chair, the first in the country. It took eight agonizing minutes to kill him but it did the job, and electrocution soon became the most widely used method of legal execution in the United States. Between 1890 and 1973, over 4,000 people were executed in the electric chair... "

Aug. 15, 2011 - Tom Head





In Nebraska v. Mata, Robert O Hippe, Judge of the Nebraska Court of Appeals, in his Feb. 8, 2008 ruling, wrote:

"[By] 1949, 26 states had changed their execution method from hanging to electrocution, but that no state had adopted electrocution since. Instead, states began adopting lethal gas as their execution method. By 1973, 12 states were using lethal gas and 20 states were using electrocution... By 1999, of the 38 states that permitted capital punishment... only four states authorized electrocution as their exclusive method of execution... Thus, as of July 1, 2002, Nebraska is the only state in the nation to require electrocution as its sole method of execution...

Before the execution, the prisoner’s head and left leg are shaved where the electrodes will be placed. Both the State and defense experts agree that a high voltage electric current causes the body to violently react with muscle contractions. Shock victims have been known to suffer broken bones and dislocated joints from the force of these contractions. Consequently, officials must tightly strap the prisoner’s torso, hips, arms, legs, ankles, and wrists to the electric chair. Witnesses observed prisoners slamming against these straps during an electrocution. Also, officials fasten the prisoner’s head to the chair with a wide leather strap across the face, with a cutout for the nose. After the prisoner is strapped in tightly, officials place a 3¼-inch circular electrode plate on the crown of the prisoner’s head and a similar grounding electrode on the prisoner’s left calf to create a circuit path through the body. They place larger natural sponges, which have been soaked in a saline solution, under each electrode next to the prisoner’s skin. The saline ions form a bridge between the prisoner’s body and the electrodes and are intended to keep the electricity from flowing outside the body. Electricity follows ions and will seek the path of least resistance...

Ronald K. Wright, M.D., the certified pathologist who recommended the State’s [Nebraska] 2004 protocol testified that 'the sponge must be damp or the sponge and the prisoner may catch on fire. Burning of the prisoner’s body is an inherent part of an electrocution. There would be burning and the possibility of severe skin burns in the last seconds of the 15-second application... the prisoner’s skin could reach a temperature of 200 degrees' the State expects burning and keeps a fire extinguisher close by."

Feb. 8, 2008 - Nebraska v. Mata





Death Penalty Curricula for High School, in its website section titled "Electrocution," (accessed Aug. 22, 2011), wrote:

"Seeking a more humane method of execution than hanging, New York built the first electric chair in 1888 and executed William Kemmler in 1890. Soon, other states adopted this execution method. Today, electrocution is used as the sole method of execution only in Nebraska. In 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court declared it 'cruel and unusual punishment,' leaving the state without a method of execution."

Aug. 22, 2011 - Death Penalty Curricula for High School





Gas Chamber:

The History Channel website, in an article titled "First Execution by Lethal Gas" (accessed Aug. 15, 2011), offered the following:

San Quentin Gas and Lethal Injection Chamber
San Quentin gas and lethal injection chamber
"The first execution by lethal gas in American history [was] carried out in Carson City, Nevada on Feb. 8, 1924. The executed man was [Gee Jon], a member of a Chinese gang who was convicted of murdering a rival gang member. Lethal gas was adopted by Nevada in 1921 as a more humane method of carrying out its death sentences, as opposed to the traditional techniques of execution by hanging, firing squad, or electrocution.

During a lethal gas execution, the prisoner is sealed in an airtight chamber and either potassium cyanide or sodium cyanide is dropped into a pan of hydrochloric acid. This produces hydrocyanic gas, which destroys a human body's ability to process blood hemoglobin. The prisoner falls unconscious within seconds and chokes to death, unless he or she holds his or her breath, in which case the prisoner often suffers violent convulsions for up to a minute before dying."

Aug. 15, 2011 - The History Channel


[Editor's Note: The History Channel listed the name of the first man executed by lethal gas as Tong Lee, but the Nevada State Library and Archives recorded the man's name as Gee Jon. The Nevada Historical Society Quarterly also listed the name as Gee Jon in a Summer 1975 article by Loren Chan titled "Example for the Nation: Nevada's Execution of Gee Jon," so we have inserted Gee Jon’s name into the above quote.]




The Office of the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney, in its website section titled "Death Penalty - Methods of Execution" (accessed Aug. 15, 2011), wrote:

"The use of a gas chamber for execution was inspired by the use of poisonous gas in World War I, as well as the popularity of the gas oven as a means of suicide. Nevada became the first state to adopt execution by lethal gas in 1924 and carried out the first execution in 1924. Since then it has served as the means of carrying out the death sentence 31 times. Lethal gas was seen as an improvement over other forms of execution, because it was less violent and did not disfigure or mutilate the body. The last execution by lethal gas took place in Arizona in 1999.

Only 4 states, Arizona, California, Missouri, and Wyoming, currently authorize lethal gas as a method of execution, all as an alternative to lethal injection, depending upon the choice of the inmate, the date of the execution or sentence, or the possibility of lethal injection being held unconstitutional. As of April 1, 2008, 11 of 1,099 (01.0%) executions performed since 1976 have been by the administration of lethal gas. Most recently, Walter LeGrand elected Lethal Gas in Arizona on March 3, 1999."

Aug. 15, 2011 - Office of the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney


[Editor's Note: Maryland allows inmates to choose execution by gas chamber if they were sentenced before the law permitting execution by gas chamber was changed on Mar. 25, 1994.]




Frederick A. Leuchter, Jr., execution equipment technician and founder of Fred Leuchter Associates, Inc., in his Mar. / Apr. 1988 Leuchter Report, retrieved from the Institute for Historical Review Online, wrote:

"The first gas chamber for execution purposes was built in Arizona in 1920. It consisted of an airtight chamber with gasketed doors and windows, a gas generator, an explosion proof electrical system, an air intake and exhaust system, provision for adding ammonia to the intake air and mechanical means for activating the gas generator and air exhaust. The air intake consisted of several mechanically operated valves. Only the hardware has changed to the present.

The gas generator consisted of a crockery pot filled with a dilute solution (18%) of sulfuric acid with a mechanical release lever. The chamber had to be scrubbed with ammonia after the execution, as did the executee. Some 25 -- 13-gram sodium cyanide pellets were used and generated a concentration of 3200 ppm in a 600 cubic foot chamber.

In the years that followed, other states adopted the HCN [hydrogen cyanide] gas chamber as a mode of execution and design techniques changed. Eaton Metal Products designed, built and improved most of the chambers... No system ever was designed to use, or ever used, Zyklon B. The reason for this is quite simple. Zyklon B takes too long to evaporate (or boil off) the HCN from the inert carrier and requires heated air and a temperature controlled system. Not only is the gas not instant, but a danger of explosion always exists... Technology available only since the late 1960's has enabled the Missouri system, which will be the most advanced system ever built, to utilize a gas vaporizer and delivery system for liquid HCN, eliminating the dangerous [sic] of handling and disposal of the prussic acid residual after the execution...

In any event, because of the cost of manufacture of HCN gas, and because of the excessive hardware and maintenance costs of the equipment, gas has been in the past, and still is, the most expensive mode of execution."

Mar. / Apr. 1988 - Frederick A. Leuchter, Jr.





John Paul Stevens, JD, US Supreme Court Justice, in an Apr. 21, 1992 dissenting opinion in Gomez v. United States, wrote:

"Execution by cyanide gas is 'in essence asphyxiation by suffocation or strangulation.' As dozens of uncontroverted expert statements filed in this case illustrate, execution by cyanide gas is extremely and unnecessarily painful. 'Following inhalation of cyanide gas, a person will first experience hypoxia, a condition defined as a lack of oxygen in the body. The hypoxic state can continue for several minutes after the cyanide gas is released in the execution chamber. During this time, a person will remain conscious and immediately may suffer extreme pain throughout his arms, shoulders, back, and chest. The sensation may be similar to pain felt by a person during a massive heart attack.' 'Execution by gas . . . produces prolonged seizures, incontinence of stool and urine, salivation, vomiting, retching, ballistic writhing, flailing, twitching of extremities, [and] grimacing.' This suffering lasts for 8 to 10 minutes, or longer."

Apr. 21, 1992 - John Paul Stevens, JD





Hanging:

The Death Penalty Information Center, in its website section titled "Descriptions of Execution Methods - Hanging" (accessed Aug. 15, 2011), offered the following:

Noose
Noose
"Until the 1890s, hanging was the primary method of execution used in the United States... For execution by this method, the inmate may be weighed the day before the execution, and a rehearsal is done using a sandbag of the same weight as the prisoner. This is to determine the length of 'drop' necessary to ensure a quick death. If the rope is too long, the inmate could be decapitated, and if it is too short, the strangulation could take as long as 45 minutes...

Immediately before the execution, the prisoner's hands and legs are secured, he or she is blindfolded, and the noose is placed around the neck, with the knot behind the left ear. The execution takes place when a trap-door is opened and the prisoner falls through. The prisoner's weight should cause a rapid fracture-dislocation of the neck. However, instantaneous death rarely occurs. If the inmate has strong neck muscles, is very light, if the 'drop' is too short, or the noose has been wrongly positioned, the fracture-dislocation is not rapid and death results from slow asphyxiation. If this occurs the face becomes engorged, the tongue protrudes, the eyes pop, the body defecates, and violent movements of the limbs occur."

Aug. 15, 2011 - Death Penalty Information Center





The Office of the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney, in its website section titled "Death Penalty - Methods of Execution," (accessed Aug. 15, 2011), wrote:

"Prior to any execution, the gallows area trap door and release mechanisms are inspected for proper operation. The rope, which is of manila hemp of at least 3/4" and not more than 1 1/4" in diameter and approximately 30 feet in length, is soaked and then stretched while drying to eliminate any spring, stiffness, or tendency to coil. The hangman's knot, which is tied pursuant to military regulations, is treated with wax, soap, or clear oil, to ensure that the rope slides smoothly through the knot. The end of the rope which does not contain the noose is tied to a grommet in the ceiling and then is tied off to a metal T-shaped bracket, which takes the force delivered by the offender's drop...

A physical examination and measuring process is conducted to assure almost instant death and a minimum of bruising. If careful measuring and planning is not done, strangulation, obstructed blood flow, or beheading could result... Following the offender's last statement, a hood is placed over the offender's head. Restraints are also applied. If the offender refuses to stand or cannot stand, he is placed on a collapse board. A determination of the proper amount of the drop of the condemned offender through the trap door is calculated using a standard military execution chart for hanging. The 'drop' must be based on the prisoner's weight, to deliver 1260 foot_pounds of force to the neck. The noose is then placed snugly around the convict's neck, behind his or her left ear, which will cause the neck to snap. The trap door then opens, and the convict drops. If properly done, death is caused by dislocation of the third and fourth cervical vertebrae, or by asphyxiation.

Hanging is the oldest method of execution in the United States, but fell into disfavor in the 20th century after many botched attempts, and was replaced by electrocution as the most common method. There have been only 3 executions by hanging since 1977: Westley Dodd (WA, 1993), Charles Campbell (WA, 1994), and Billy Bailey (DE, 1998). Only 3 states, Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington, currently authorize hanging as a method of execution, all as an alternative to lethal injection, depending upon the choice of the inmate, whether injection is 'impractical,' or the possibility of lethal injection being held unconstitutional. As of April 1, 2008, 3 of 1,099 (0.3%) executions performed since 1976 have been by hanging. Most recently, Billy Bailey elected Hanging in Delaware on January 25, 1996."

Aug. 15, 2011 - Office of the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney


[Editor's Note: Delaware no longer authorizes the use of hanging as a method of execution. Execution by hanging was an option in Delaware for offenses committed before June 13, 1986. In July 2003, the last inmate eligible to choose execution by hanging won a new trial and received a life sentence. Delaware's gallows were subsequently dismantled.]




Firing Squad:

Kevin P. Robillard, Editorial Assistant at POLITICO, wrote in his June 16, 2010 Newsweek article, "Making a Killing: A History of Execution Methods in the United States":

Firing Squad
Firing squad, likely a historic characterization
"On June 18, 2010, convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner... became the third man to die by firing squad since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. He's likely to be the last. Utah is one of only two states that still allow the firing squad - Oklahoma is the other - and both tightly restrict it. In the Utah, only prisoners who chose the squad prior to its 2004 elimination can elect to die by the bullet. In Oklahoma, the option will only be available if lethal injection is ever declared unconstitutional...

Too many hangings were going wrong, resulting in decapitations or slow, painful choking deaths that disturbed onlookers. Part of the solution was for hangings to move indoors, behind prison walls. Another part was to look for more humane methods. In 1896... the governor of New York set up a commission to look for better options.

Meanwhile, Western and Southern states, particularly those with strong gun cultures, legalized firing squads. In the 19th century, these deaths were uncomplicated. The condemned was strapped to a pole of some kind, blindfolded, and then shot at by marksman. Today, the process is more complex. Five shooters will aim at Gardener, but only four of them will have live .30 caliber rounds. (The fifth will have a dud that generates similar noise and recoil.) Simultaneously, they'll shoot at an 'area the size of the palm of your hand,' Seitz said. 'If the firing squad is done correctly, it's extremely fast.' Gary Gilmore... died by this method. The military also commonly used the firing squad, particularly during the Civil War."

June 16, 2010 - Kevin P. Robillard





Hal Schindler, late Salt Lake Tribune journalist and historian, after witnessing John Albert Taylor's death by firing squad in Utah, in a Jan. 28, 1996 Salt Lake Tribune article titled "Taylor's Death Was Quick... But Some Weren't So Lucky Executioner's Song - a Utah Reprise," wrote:

"If ever John Albert Taylor felt consuming terror, it would have been in the agonizing 45 seconds before a Utah State Prison firing squad snuffed out his life early Friday morning. That was the elapsed time from the moment Warden Hank Galetka pulled a hood over the convicted child-killer's head and stepped from the execution chamber to the instant that four .30-caliber slugs slammed into Taylor's chest. As quickly as the breath exploded from his lungs, it was over. Taylor was dead before the doctor could make the official pronouncement--before witnesses could bring themselves to breathe again. Not all of Utah's 49 executions have been so methodical, or so fatally efficient. In fact, firing squads have bungled two executions--one in 1879, the other in 1951. And while the condemned have been given options of hanging and--in recent years--lethal injection, 40 have died from gunfire...

Much has been made of firing squads being a throwback to early Utah, when Brigham Young was governor and speaking forcibly about murderers--that their souls could be saved only by having their own blood shed. And it is a fact that a territorial law approved in March 1852 provided that the condemned should suffer death by being shot, hanged or beheaded...

As for firing squads, Idaho, Nevada and Oklahoma used them for a while. [In] 1911, Nevada... broke with the past and amended the penal code to include firing squads. First to make use of the option was Andriza Mircovich in May 1913. The state responded by ordering a 'shooting machine' from an Eastern foundry. It consisted of three rifles mounted on a steel frame. Phillip I. Earl of the Nevada Historical Society described the weapons as 'pre-aimed, loaded [with two live rounds and a blank] and equipped with Maxim silencers. They were to be fired by a coiled spring mechanism set off by simultaneously cutting three strings, only one of which would fire the two loaded rifles. The machine, facetiously dubbed the 'shooting gallery,' was used to execute Mircovich, but it never was used again. The contraption went into storage until World War I, when it was donated to a scrap-metal drive."

Jan. 28, 1996 - Hal Schindler