Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty

Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty

Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty

Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty

Synopsis

"How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection," wrote Justice Scalia, in a concurring opinion that denied review of a Texas death penalty case. But is it quiet? Renewed and vigorous debate over the death penalty has erupted as DNA testing has proven that many on death row are in fact innocent. In this debate, however, the guilty have been forgotten. In his new book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty, renowned legal scholar Austin Sarat describes just how unquiet death by execution can be. If we assume a death row prisoner is guilty, how can we be sure that we are fulfilling the Supreme Court's mandate to ensure that his execution is "the mere extinguishment of life" and not a cruel and unusual punishment?

Gruesome Spectacles is a history of botched, mismanaged, and painful executions in the U.S. from 1890-2010. Using new research, Sarat traces the evolution of methods of execution that were employed during this time, and were meant to improve on the methods that went before, from hanging or firing squad to electrocution to gas and lethal injection. Even though each of these technologies was developed to "perfect" state killing by decreasing the chance of a cruel death, an estimated three percent of all American executions went awry in one way or another. Sarat recounts the gripping and truly gruesome stories of some of these deaths--stories obscured by history and to some extent, the popular press.

Excerpt

On September 28, 1900, the state of North Carolina hanged Art Kinsauls for a murder committed in Sampson County. Born in that county in 1865, Kinsauls had lived there his entire life, marrying a local girl, Posunnie Gibsy Bass, in 1896. Even though Art weighed only 110 pounds, he was said to be “tough as iron.” He had the unfortunate habit of getting into violent arguments and carried on a long running feud with John C. Herring, his neighbor. One night when Kinsauls was in Art Vann’s Store at Beaman’s Crossroad, an argument began and then a fight broke out. “Kinsauls reached into the meat box and got a sharp butcher knife and stabbed young Herring to such an extent that he died during the night.”

Kinsauls was arrested a few days after Herring’s death and taken to the county jail in Clinton. With the help of a group of his friends, he soon escaped, and avoided capture for nine months. The sheriff and a posse only recaptured him after a gunfight at his farm, which left him seriously wounded. Brought to trial in October 1899, Kinsauls was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to hang.

On the surface at least, there was nothing remarkable about North Carolina’s plan for the Kinsauls execution. Hanging had been the primary method of execution in the United States since the founding of the American colonies. It was an inexpensive, low-tech way of putting people to death. Hangings could be handled at the local level, and did not require elaborate execution protocols.

Kinsauls refused to go quietly. He tried to kill himself twice, first with an overdose of sleeping pills and later by using a tin lid to cut his throat. Both attempts failed, but each resulted in a postponement of his . . .

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