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Death by firing squad? How America executes inmates on death row

Death by firing squad
From left, Gary Gilmore, Ronnie Gardner and John Albert Taylor are the only three death row inmates to be killed by a firing squad in recent American history.
(Associated Press; Associated Press; Salt Lake Tribune)

Death row convicts in the United States have gasped for air, have been strangled accidentally and have even been decapitated when executions go awry. Recent problems with lethal injection, the nation’s most popular method of execution, have raised questions about how states execute condemned prisoners, which now number more than 3,000.

A federal judge called for the use of firing squads this week, saying U.S. citizens need to confront the "savage" reality of capital punishment. His comments were made in connection with an appeal by Joseph Rudolph Wood III for a stay in his execution by lethal injection. Wood was executed Wednesday in Arizona, dying after he gasped and snorted for nearly two hours. His was the fourth lethal injection this year that had problems.

But what are the alternatives? In the United States, five methods are in use -- firing squad, hanging, gas chamber, electrocution and lethal injection. Here’s a look at the executions carried out since 1976, where the specific methods are legal and some of the things that could go wrong.

Firing squad: 3 executions

AVERAGE MINUTES/GAME

The prisoner is strapped into a chair and hooded with a target pinned to the chest. Five marksmen, one with blanks, take aim and fire.

states that allow firing squad executions

Utah: Offenders condemned before May 3, 2004, can select the method of execution. A firing squad would be used if lethal injection is ever declared unconstitutional.

Oklahoma: A firing squad would be used if other methods are ever deemed unconstitutional.

Hanging by the neck: 3 executions

AVERAGE MINUTES/GAME

Death on the gallows requires a precise drop distance. If the drop is too short, the prisoner will die by strangulation. If the drop is too long, the head may be torn off.

states that allow hanging executions

Delaware: Offenders condemned before June 13, 1986, can select the method of execution.

Gas chamber: 11 executions

AVERAGE MINUTES/GAME

The introduction of the gas chamber was an attempt to improve on electrocution but has been criticized in some courts as "cruel and unusual punishment."

states that allow poison gas executions

Arizona: Offenders condemned before November 1992 can select the method of execution.

Maryland: Offenders condemned before March 25, 1994, can select the method of execution.

Electric chair: 158 executions

AVERAGE MINUTES/GAME

Electrocution was the most widely used form of execution in the 20th century. The condemned prisoner is strapped into a chair and electrodes are fastened to the head and legs. A switch is thrown and sends as much as 2,000 volts through the body.

states that allow electrocution executions

Arkansas: Offenders condemned before July 4, 1983, can select the method of execution.

Kentucky: Offenders condemned before March 31,1998, can select the method of execution.

Tennessee: Offenders condemned before Jan. 1, 1999, can select the method of execution.

Lethal injection: 1,210 executions

AVERAGE MINUTES/GAME

The prisoner is injected with a fatal dose of drugs, typically a barbiturate, a paralytic and a potassium solution. The drugs put the prisoner to sleep, stop his breathing and finally, his heart. Two IVs are inserted, one in each arm. The primary IV carries out the execution and the other is a backup.

states that allow lethal injection executions

Connecticut: The state abolished the death penalty in 2011 but the ban was not retroactive, leaving 11 prisoners on death row.

New Mexico: The state abolished the death penalty in 2009 but the ban was not retroactive, leaving two prisoners on death row.

Sources: ACLU, Death Penalty Information Center


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