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."
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
* 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.
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:
"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.
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.
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.
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:
"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...
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...
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."
The History Channel website, in an article titled "First Execution by Lethal Gas" (accessed Aug. 15, 2011), offered the following:
"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.
[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.
[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.
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."
The Death Penalty Information Center, in its website section titled "Descriptions of Execution Methods - Hanging" (accessed Aug. 15, 2011), offered the following:
"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...
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...
[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.]
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":
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...