03/13/2014 09:55 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2014

Here's The Scary Truth About Science & The Death Penalty

A recent pair of botched executions has renewed the debate over lethal injection and whether it's actually less inhumane than other methods used to execute condemned prisoners.

In January, when Ohio used a new drug "cocktail" to execute convicted rapist and murderer Dennis McGuire, he reportedly gasped repeatedly and took more than 25 minutes to die. Days earlier, when Oklahoma executed Michael Lee Wilson, the convicted killer uttered these last words: "I feel my whole body burning."

(See below for a selected history of execution methods.)

Leaving aside the issue of whether the death penalty itself is inhumane, one might think that science could be enlisted to help devise a method of execution that spares the condemned from needless suffering.

Certainly there are historical examples of scientists and physicians offering their execution expertise. In the late 19th Century, researchers in the U.S. developed the electric chair as a more humane alternative to public hangings. Despite their efforts, executions using the chair often proved to be quite grotesque. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote in a dissent to the Supreme Court in the case of Glass v. Louisiana (1985):

The prisoner's eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on [his] cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner's flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire ... Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber.

Roughly a century earlier, French physicians Joseph-Ignace Guillotin and Antoine Lois developed the guillotine to be a painless and efficient execution machine.

In any case, many doctors today are guided by the Hippocratic Oath, which forbids them from willfully inflicting harm on others.

"It is unethical for physicians (the only ones with the requisite knowledge) to participate in the unwilling demise of any human being," Dr. David Lubarsky, an University of Miami anesthesiologist who has conducted research on lethal injection, told The Huffington Post in an email. "We don't kill people who want to live. We don't help others kill people who want to live... Once you cross the line as an agent/enabler of the state to cause the death of someone not seeking to die, you are no longer a healer."

When lethal injection got its start in 1977, the medical community certainly kept its distance.

As Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor who has testified in many lethal injection cases, said of the invention of the three-drug protocol typically used in lethal injection, "There was no medical testing of the drug combination. There was no science. I think it was the pretense of science and a medical veneer. It was basically concocted in an afternoon."

Now, in some states, critical drug shortages have forced corrections departments to find new untested drug alternatives.

"It’s not like you have a scientific expert sitting there and saying ‘these are the drugs you should use and in this amount.’" Denno said. "To the contrary I think one of the reasons we see these constant problems and this jump from drug to drug is these people, either they’re getting no advice whatsoever or the advice they’re getting is very bad and it’s all under the table."

Even if science could aid in the development of a more humane killing method, Denno said, those with the appropriate expertise are unlikely to get involved.

"In light of a long-standing history from the late 1800s up to the present time, I would be extraordinarily surprised if the scientific community ever got involved in this issue."

Keep reading for a look at methods of execution in use at various times.

  • Lethal Injection
    Until 2010, most states used a three-drug combination: an anesthetic (pentobarbital or sodium thiopental), a paralytic agent (pancuronium bromide) to paralyze the muscle system, and a drug to stop the heart (potassium chloride). Recently, European pharmaceutical companies have refused to sell drugs to the U.S. for use in lethal injections, requiring states to find new, untested alternatives.
  • Gas Chamber
    Gas chambers, like this one pictured at the former Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Mo., were first used in the U.S. in 1924. In the procedure, an inmate is sealed inside an airtight chamber which is then filled with toxic hydrogen cyanide gas. Oxygen starvation ultimately leads to death, but the inmate does not immediately lose consciousness.
  • Electric Chair
    The first electric chair was used in 1890. Electrodes attached to an inmate's body deliver a current of electricity. Sometimes more than one jolt is required.
  • Hanging
    Hanging was used as the primary method of execution in the U.S. until the electric chair's invention in 1890. Death is typically caused by dislocation of the vertebrae or asphyxiation, but in cases when the rope is too long, the inmate can sometimes be decapitated. If too short, the inmate can take up to 45 minutes to die.
  • Firing Squad
    This Old West-style execution method dates back to the invention of firearms. In a typical scenario in the U.S., the inmate is strapped to a chair. Five anonymous marksmen stand 20 feet away, aim rifles at the convict's heart, and shoot. One rifle is loaded with blanks.
  • Beheading
    Wikimedia Commons
    Decapitation has been used in capital punishment for thousands of years. Above is the chopping block used for beheadings at the Tower of London.
  • Guillotine
    Kauko via Wikimedia Commons
    Invented in France in the late 18th century during the French Revolution, the guillotine was designed to be an egalitarian means of execution. It severed the head more quickly and efficiently than beheading by sword.
  • Hanging, Drawing and Quartering
    Wikimedia Commons
    A punishment for men convicted of high treason, "hanging, drawing and quartering" was used in England between the 13th and 19th centuries. Men were dragged behind a horse, then hanged, disemboweled, beheaded, and chopped or torn into four pieces.
  • Slow Slicing
    Carter Cutlery/Wikimedia Commons
    Also called "death by a thousand cuts," this execution method was used in China from roughly A.D. 900 until it was banned in 1905. The slicing took place for up to three days. It was used as punishment for treason and killing one's parents.
  • Boiling Alive
    Wikimedia Commons
    Death by boiling goes back to the first century A.D., and was legal in the 16th century in England as punishment for treason. This method of execution involved placing the person into a large cauldron containing a boiling liquid such as oil or water.
  • Crucifixion
    Wikimedia Commons
    Crucifixion goes back to around the 6th century B.C.used today in Sudan. For this method of execution, a person is tied or nailed to a cross and left to hang. Death is slow and painful, ranging from hours to days.
  • Burning Alive
    Pat Canova via Getty Images
    Records show societies burning criminals alive as far back as the 18 century B.C. under Hammurabi's Code of Laws in Babylonia. It has been used as punishment for sexual deviancy, witchcraft, treason and heresy.
  • Live Burial
    Antoine Wiertz/Wikimedia Commons
    Execution by burial goes back to 260 B.C. in ancient China, when 400,000 were reportedly buried alive by the Qin dynasty. Depending on the size of the coffin (assuming there is one), it can take anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours for a person to run out of oxygen.
  • Stoning
    Wikimedia Commons
    This ancient method of execution continues to be used as punishment for adultery today.
  • Crushing By Elephant
    Wikimedia Commons
    This method was commonly used for many centuries in South and Southeast Asia, in which an elephant would crush and dismember convicts as a punishment for treason.
  • Flaying
    Michelangelo/Wikimedia Commons
    Records show flaying, the removal of skin from the body, was used as far back as the 9th century B.C.
  • Impalement
    Wikimedia Commons
    Records show this execution practice used as far back as the 18th century B.C., where a person is penetrated through the center of their body with a stake or pole.

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