Resouces, Advice & Tips for Covid-19
Read More

5 Types of Execution Used for the Death Penalty

Tamsen Butler
Death Penalty

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment, but the law allows for execution. Most - but not all - states have the death penalty and strive to conduct executions in ways that carry out the sentence of death without undue suffering. While history has an abundance of cruel execution methods recorded, in present day there are only a handful of acceptable execution methods among those states allowing them.

Lethal Injection

The most common form of execution within the United States, lethal injection involves injecting first sodium pentothal, which renders the condemned unconscious. The second element of the IV injection is pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the condemned, followed by potassium chloride to stop the heart from functioning. An alternative combination includes midazolam to prompt unconsciousness followed by hydromorphone, which stops breathing and causes cardiac arrest. The actual combination of drugs can vary by state. The process is supposed to take around 10 minutes from injection until the pronouncement of death.

Criticisms of Lethal Injection

Members of the American Medical Association and the American Nursing Association are not allowed to perform lethal injections as it goes against the oath to do no harm, so medical professionals may not be the ones preparing or injecting the lethal cocktail; this has resulted in problems with injections, causing additional pain and suffering before death.


The second most common form of execution within the United States is "the electric chair." The condemned is strapped to a chair and currents of electricity are released through the body, forcing the heart to eventually stop. The exact protocol for electrocution varies from state to state. The process takes anywhere from 2 to 15 minutes to complete from start to finish.

Criticisms of Electrocution

Stories of malfunctioning electrocutions include parts of the condemned's body catching on fire or the prisoner yelling out in pain when they were assumed to have already died.


Historically, hanging was the most common form of execution within the United States until electrocution came along (lethal injection became the execution method of choice soon thereafter). Very few states authorize hanging as an execution method in present day, but of the three that do, two offer it as one of the two acceptable methods while one only allows it if lethal injection isn't available or is made unlawful. The goal of hanging isn't to choke the condemned to death, but rather to sever the spinal cord and cause brain death quickly. The entire process from start to finish should take around 20 minutes, with the majority of that time spent with the condemned presumed unconscious and unaware.

Criticisms of Hanging

If the noose is not placed correctly, the condemned can wind up strangled to death - or worse - decapitated.

Firing Squad

Of the three states allowing firing squad as a method of execution, all three have other methods of execution preferable before firing squads. Firing squads made a comeback in the United States in response to botched lethal injections. In a firing squad execution, the condemned is typically hooded and then strapped in place before a squad of shooters aims for a target placed on the condemned's heart and then shoots (one or more of the shooters has a blank cartridge unbeknownst to them making it to where no shooter knows who caused the fatality). Death results from blood loss and can happen as quickly as less than a minute.

Criticisms of Firing Squads

Some say firing squads are a "step back," harkening to less civilized times. It's been described as "barbaric" by some critics.

Lethal Gas

A small number of states allow for execution by gas chamber, which involves strapping the condemned onto a chair in a chamber. The chamber is then filled with cyanide gas, which in turn kills the condemned by asphyxiation. The process takes 10 to 20 minutes to complete.

Criticisms of Lethal Gas

Dying by asphyxiation is not a painless way to go, and the condemned is conscious and aware throughout the entire process until the moment of death.

Execution Around the World

Saudi Arabia allows for public beheadings as a form of execution. Terrorist group ISIS is known for its particularly brutal execution methods. Some countries within the Middle East still allow public stonings, especially in instances of adultery (especially for women). The majority of countries around the globe have banned capital punishment; the United States is among the minority of countries still allowing this practice.

5 Types of Execution Used for the Death Penalty