In January, the U.S. Supreme Court will be debating the merits of Baze v. Rees; specifically, whether the "three drug cocktail" used in about a dozen states to execute death row prisoners "adequately protects the condemned from undue pain and suffering". Under this regime, you get one drug (sodium pentothal) to knock you out, a muscle relaxant so you can't breath, and a third drug that stops your heart. Sometimes, though, the procedure is botched and the condemned prisoner dies howling, moaning, foaming at the mouth and etc. And even when they just lay there and it looks like they're falling asleep, this may be due to the paralytic effect of the muscle relaxant. The prisoner may in reality be suffering excruciating pain.
Sunday's New York Times has a wonderfully lurid backgrounder by Elizabeth Weil on this case and, more generally, America's hunt for a painless and non-messy method of killing off its death row inmates. In probably one of the best bits of writing I've come across in awhile, she argues that:
The history of capital punishment in the United States has been filled with a peripatetic search for a method of killing that doesn’t offend a blood-thirsty, yet tough-on-crime, yet squeamish public. Nooses, if the drop is too short, leave bodies twitching; if the drop is too long, heads pop off. Electric chairs result in horrible odors and burns. Firing squads are too violent. Gas chambers take too long and are too grotesque.
Considered logically, of course, the choice is obvious. The quickest and most painless way to extinguish the seat of human consciousness is to do like they do in zombie movies. Destroy the brain! This, incidentally, is why your supposed to stick a lobster head first into the pot. Unfortunately, the human brain takes much longer to reach a boil, but surely there are other methods that effect the same end. One I've thought alot about (but not yet attempted to patent) is to strap your condemned prisoner into a chair, jam a .12 gauge shell up each nostril, and start chopping up onions in the immediate vicinity. One sneeze and ker-fuckin'-blooey! They won't feel a thing.
This makes the coroner's job easy ("Death was instantaneous!" "No shit!!") but it is damned messy and hard on the delicate sensibilities of the witnesses who, given that they work in the U.S. prison system, probably have socialization or drug issues already.
But do less splatty versions of the same basic operation exist? Antiquity gives us the case of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, the early Christian thinker best known for his Consolation of Philosophy. When the ancient Ostrogoth's decided to off Boethius, they stuck his head in a vise and turned the screws until his brains popped out. Surely, the turning action could mechanized and witnesses to the execution would know when the job was done when they heard that characteristic "popping" sound.
...or when the shrieking ceased. According to history, Boethius screamed like a girl while his big Turkish executioner applied the screws. Later, the Turk wept, and was permanently traumatized.
So maybe we're back to square.
Maybe the best bet is simply to lock them up in a small cell somewhere with a television that doesn't get cable, feed them decently, and tell them that there they shall remain for the span of their natural life. Takes longer, but the clean-up afterwards is quite a bit easier.