The Cruel Myth of `Humane' Execution

By Hillman, Dr Harold | The Independent (London, England), April 9, 1995 | Go to article overview
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The Cruel Myth of `Humane' Execution

Hillman, Dr Harold, The Independent (London, England)

The document on this page is an academic paper originally entitled

`The possible pain experienced during execution by different methods' It was written by Dr Harold Hillman,

of Surrey University, who of the death of Nicholas Ingram yesterday said:

`The fact he was English is irrelevant . . . I equate the use of the electric chair with torture.'

HAROLD HILLMAN is a mild-mannered academic from Guildford, aged 64. He is also the world authority on execution. He believes that the electric chair is second in cruelty only to the biblical punishment of stoning - still practised in some Islamic countries - as a method of killing. The following report is extracted from an article written by Dr Hillman, Reader in Physiology at the University of Surrey and Director of the University's Unity Laboratory of Applied Neurobiology, which appeared in the journal Perception, Vol 22, 1993.


THE physiology and pathology of different methods of capital punishment are described. Information about this physiology and pathology can be derived from observations on the condemned persons, post-mortem examinations, physiological studies on animals, and the literature on emergency medicine. It is difficult to know how much pain the person being executed feels or for how long, because many of the signs of pain are obscured by the procedure or by physical restraints, but one can identify those steps which are likely to be painful. The general view has been that most of the methods lead to a virtually painless, rapid and dignified death. Evidence is presented which shows that, with the possible exception of intravenous injection, this view is almost certainly wrong.


IN 1989 execution was carried out by shooting in 86 countries, hanging in 78, stoning in seven, beheading in six, and electrocution, intravenous injection, and gassing in the United States only (Amnesty International 1989). Two aspects of execution will be addressed: first, the physiology and pathology of the different methods and second, the pain attendant upon each method.

Physiology and pathology

in different methods of



THIS may be carried out either by a single soldier or policeman at short range who fires from behind the condemned person's occiput {back of the head} towards the frontal region, or by a firing squad of up to 30 who stand or kneel opposite the blindfolded prisoner(s). Sometimes the soldiers aim at the chest, since this is easier to hit than the head (Amnesty International, 1989). The intention of shooting at short range is to destroy the vital centres of the medulla {lower brain stem}, as happens when a captive bolt is used for slaughtering cattle. A firing squad aiming at the head produces the same type of lesions as that produced by a single soldier, but bullets fired at the chest rupture the heart, great vessels, and lungs so that the condemned person dies of haemorrhage. A bullet produces a cavity which has a volume several hundred times that of the bullet. Cavitation is probably due to the heat dissipated when the impact of the bullet boils the water and volatile fats in the tissue which it strikes. Persons hit by bullets feel as if they have been punched - pain comes later if the victim survives long enough to feel it. The Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1953) discussed shooting as an alternative to hanging, but rejected it on the grounds that "it does not possess even the first requisite of an efficient method, the certainty of causing immediate death". Those giving evidence to the Commission frequently emphasised their belief that execution should be rapid, clean and dignified.


THIS method was last used in Britain in 1964 - the death penalty was abolished in 1973. It would probably be used again if Parliament voted to restore capital punishment.

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