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Facts Sheet: Methods of Execution

last updated August 1, 2004

Lethal Injection

  • In 1977, lethal injection was first adopted by the state of Oklahoma.
  • Lethal injection is the most common method of putting capital offenders to death in the United States.
    • Since 1976, 82% of all executions have been by lethal injection.
    • The U.S. federal government, the military, and 37 of the 38 states with death penalty statutes authorize lethal injection as a method of execution.
    • In 17 states and the federal government, lethal injection is the only permissible execution method.
    • In 20 states, lethal injection is the primary method, but alternative options are also available.
    • Nebraska is the only death penalty state that does not permit lethal injections.
  • In most jurisdictions, lethal injection involves a combination of three drugs, which are administered sequentially.
    • First, the prisoner is injected with sodium pentothal, which renders unconsciousness.
    • Next, pancuronium bromide is used to paralyze muscles, lungs, and the diaphragm.
    • Finally, potassium chloride is administered, producing cardiac arrest.
  • Since medical ethics preclude physicians’ participation in executions, inexperienced technicians or orderlies often perform lethal injections.
    • As a result, some injections are performed incorrectly, forcing drugs to enter muscle instead of veins, clogging needles, and causing other mishaps that can cause the prisoner extreme pain before death.
  • Lethal injection is viewed as the most “humane” form of execution.
    • Researchers are currently analyzing whether the paralysis induced by pancuronium bromide masks prisoners’ pain during the lethal injection process.
    • Texas law forbids the use of lethal injection chemicals on animals, considering such use inhumane.


  • The United States is the only country in the world that still sends prisoners to the electric chair.
  • Electrocution is the second most common method of execution in the United States.
    • Since 1976, 152 people have been electrocuted.
    • Ten states authorize the use of the electric chair.
    • Nebraska is the only state that retains electrocution as its sole method of execution.
  • To begin the electrocution process, the prisoner is shaved, strapped to a chair, and hooded.
    • A metal cap with electrodes is then placed on the head over a moistened sponge, which helps conduct electrical current into the prisoner.
    • Electrodes are also placed on the prisoner’s ankles, causing the current to divide and pass through the entire body.
    • The electrocution cycle begins with 2,300 volts (9.5 amps) for eight seconds, followed by 1,000 volts (4 amps) for 22 seconds, then 2,300 volts (9.5 amps) for eight seconds.
  • During electrocution, the body heats up to 138° Fahrenheit (59° Celsius).
    • After electrocution, the prisoner must be allowed to cool down before a physician can check to see if the heart is still beating.
    • If the heart is still beating, the cycle is repeated.
    • After death, the prisoner’s body is hot enough to cause blisters if touched.
  • During electrocution, the prisoner experiences severe physical effects.
    • The prisoner may have violent limb movement resulting in dislocations or fractures.
    • Tissues swell, the skin may split, and the prisoner’s eyeballs may pop out of their sockets.
    • The body often smokes, and sometimes catches on fire.
    • The prisoner frequently urinates, defecates, and vomits during the process.
  • If the electric current is too weak, which can happen when equipment is old, or if a synthetic or dry sponge is used, the prisoner slowly roasts to death.
    • In one such instance, the current was stopped after twelve-inch flames shot from the prisoner’s head, and the prisoner was still gasping for air. The electrocution cycle was subsequently repeated, with similar results, until the prisoner died.
  • The U.S. Humane Society and the American Veterinarian Medical Association both condemn electrocution as a method of euthanasia for animals.

Lethal Gas

  • Execution by lethal gas was inspired by the use of gas in WWI and introduced in 1924.
  • Lethal gas was viewed as more humane than electrocution and other contemporaneous execution methods.
    • Since 1924, 31 persons have been executed by lethal gas.
    • The last execution using lethal gas was performed in 1999 on German national Walter LeGrand in Arizona.
    • Only Arizona, California, Mississippi, and Wyoming still authorize lethal gas as a method of execution.
  • Prisoners are executed by lethal gas in a hermetically sealed chamber, where sulfuric acid is mixed with cyanide pellets to create hydrogen cyanide gas.
    • This gas causes oxygen to be cut off from the brain, and the inmate dies of hypoxia.
    • As the prisoner begins to feel unable to breathe, they experience spasms and pain similar to a heart attack.
    • Though prisoners are instructed to breathe deeply to speed this process, most hold their breath, which can prolong death for up to 18 minutes.
  • According to a San Quentin warden, prisoners evidence extreme horror, pain, and strangling during executions by lethal gas. The prisoners’ eyes pop, their skin turns purple, and they often drool.
  • In 1996, the Ninth Circuit determined in Fierro v. Gomez that execution by lethal gas is cruel and unusual punishment.


  • Hanging is the oldest form of execution in the United States.
  • In the 20th century, due to numerous botched executions, hanging was replaced by electrocution as the most popular execution method.
    • Since 1976, only 3 people have been executed by hanging.
    • Only Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington currently authorize hanging as a method of execution.
  • During a hanging, the prisoner is hooded and placed over a trap door.
    • A suspended rope is fastened around their neck and knotted at the left ear.
    • When the trap door is opened the prisoner drops, and the weight of the body tears the cervical muscles, skin, and blood vessels.
    • The cervical vertebrae are dislocated and the spinal cord is separated from the brain, causing death.
  • If the rope used in a hanging is too long, the prisoner will likely be decapitated.
  • If the rope is too short, or if the prisoner has strong neck muscles or is very light, the prisoner strangles to death.
    • It can take up to 45 minutes for death to occur under these circumstances.
    • The tongue protrudes, the face becomes purple and engorged, and the eyes pop.
    • Violent limb movements occur, and the body spills bowel and bladder in the process. In such cases, prisoners have attempted to pull themselves up by the rope, or begged hangmen to pull them up and drop them again.

Firing Squad

  • Death by firing squad is the least common method of execution used in the United States.
    • Gary Gilmore, the first person to be executed after the death penalty's reinstatement in 1976, was executed by firing squad in Utah. 
    • Since 1976, only 2 inmates have been executed by firing squad.
    • Utah banned firing squads as a method of execution in March 2004.
    • Only Idaho and Oklahoma still allow death by firing squad.
  • To prepare the prisoner for execution by firing squad, a physician locates the prisoner’s heart and pins a cloth target over it.
    • The prisoner is then hooded and strapped to a chair surrounded by sandbags, which are in place to absorb the prisoner’s blood.
    • Three to six shooters stand or kneel in front of the prisoner and aim for the chest, causing rupture of the heart, major vessels, and lungs.
    • Unlike a shot to the head, which causes instantaneous death, shots aimed at the heart cause the prisoner to die from hemorrhage and shock, or torn lungs.
    • Frequently, an officer must shoot the prisoner in the head after initial rounds fail to cause death.
    • In some cases, if the shooters miss the heart by accident or intention, the prisoner is simply left to slowly bleed to death.
  • In most jurisdictions, to spare the consciences of the executioners, one member of the firing squad is issued a blank charge rather than live rounds.

Compiled from:; Methods of Execution, Death Penalty Information Center; Post-Furman Botched Executions, Death Penalty Information Center; Harvey Rice, Suit Challenges Injection Make-up, available at Jacob Weisberg, This is Your Death, The New Republic, July 1, 1991;