Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty

Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty

by Austin Sarat


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Gruesome Spectacles tells the sobering history of botched, mismanaged, and painful executions in the U.S. from 1890 to the present. Since the book's initial publication in 2014, the cruel and unusual executions of a number of people on death row, including Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Joseph Wood in Arizona, have made headlines and renewed vigorous debate surrounding the death penalty in America. Austin Sarat's book instantly became an essential resource for citizens, scholars, and lawmakers interested in capital punishment—even the Supreme Court, which cited the book in its recent opinion, Glossip v. Gross.

Now in paperback, the book includes a new preface outlining the latest twists and turns in the death penalty debate, including the recent galvanization of citizens and leaders alike as recent botched executions have unfolded in the press. Sarat argues that unlike in the past, today's botched executions seem less like inexplicable mishaps and more like the latest symptoms of a death penalty machinery in disarray. Gruesome Spectacles traces the historical evolution of methods of execution, 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804799454
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 02/01/2016
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 534,650
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. Sarat has written for numerous academic and trade publications, and his books include: When the State Kills (2001), Mercy on Trial (2005) and Re-imagining To Kill a Mockingbird (2013).

Read an Excerpt

Gruesome Spectacles

Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty

By Austin Sarat, Katherine Blumstein, Aubrey Jones, Heather Richard, Madeline Sprung-Keyser


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9172-4


The Mere Extinguishment of Life?

Technological Efficiency, Botched Executions, and the Legitimacy of Capital Punishment in the United States

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 hisexecution. In the meantime, North Carolina governor Daniel Russell received many requests for a reprieve from influential Sampson County citizens, each of which the governor refused.

On the day of the hanging, hundreds of people traveled from all over the county to witness it. The gallows was erected near the jail where Kinsauls had originally been held. As in all its executions, Sampson County used a stepladder as its gallows, but in this instance it failed to do its job. The drop height proved insufficient to break the condemned's neck. With Kinsauls suspended at the end of the rope, the attending physician quickly determined that he was still alive.

Compounding the problem was the fact that his neck had only partially healed from his last suicide attempt. As a result, when Kinsauls fell from the stepladder, the rope ripped open his neck wound and left him bleeding profusely. The assembled crowd of friends and neighbors nearly rioted. Undaunted by the failure of their first execution attempt and the increasingly chaotic, bloody scene, officials cut him down, forced him up the ladder again, and repeated the drop. This time the execution succeeded and Kinsauls died. His was the last public hanging in Sampson County.

Newspapers all over the country took note of the Kinsauls execution. Headlines in the Atlanta Constitution, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Republic (St. Louis, Missouri) announced that it had not gone as planned. For example, the Washington Post titled its article "Murderer Hanged Twice." The stories, in turn, used vivid language to convey the horror of Kinsauls's last minutes on earth. The Post described a "Ghastly Gallows Scene," and the Virginian Pilot called it a thoroughly "revolting execution."

Almost a century later, in March 1997, American newspapers carried stories of another botched execution—the electrocution of Pedro Medina, a thirty-nine-year-old Cuban immigrant convicted and condemned for stabbing a Florida high school teacher to death. After the current was turned on, as one newspaper put it, flames "leaped from the head" of the condemned. "'It was horrible,' a witness was quoted as saying, 'a solid flame covered his whole head, from one side to the other. I had the impression of somebody being burned alive.'" Another reporter wrote, "The electrocution of Pedro Medina on Tuesday was the stuff of nightmares and horror fiction novels and films. A foot-long blue and orange flame shot from the mask covering his head for about 10 seconds, filling the execution chamber with smoke and sickening witnesses with the odor of charred human flesh."

Yet news reports also conveyed the "reassuring" reaction of Dr. Belle Almojera, medical director at Florida State Prison, who said that before the apparatus caught fire Medina already had "lurched up in his seat and balled up his fists—the normal reaction to high voltage.... 'I saw no evidence of pain or suffering by the inmate throughout the entire process. In my professional opinion, he died a very quick, humane death.'" The Florida Supreme Court found that "Medina's brain was instantly and massively depolarized within milliseconds of the initial surge of electricity. He suffered no conscious pain." And others defended his botched electrocution by noting that it "was much more humane than what was done to the victim."

Despite these attempts to contain adverse public reaction, the Medina execution, like the Kinsauls execution before it, made headlines because it suggested that the quest for a painless, and allegedly humane, technology of death was by no means complete. Both botched executions remind us of the ferocity of the state's sovereign power over life itself. At the same time, these news stories also offered capital punishment's supporters a hint of relief. Most stories treated Medina's electrocution as a mere technological glitch rather than as an occasion to rethink the practice of state killing itself. Florida's Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel opined, for example, that the state "is justified in imposing the death penalty.... But it has no justification for retaining a method ... that is so gruesome and violent and sometimes flawed." What might have been a challenge to the legitimacy of the killing state was quickly written off as Florida's failure to keep up with the technology of the times.

Botched executions, like those of Kinsauls and Medina, have been, and remain, an important part of the story of capital punishment in the United States. From the beginning, American execution practices have been designed to differentiate law's violence from violence outside the law—to sharply set capital punishment apart from the crimes the law condemns. This was especially true in the twentieth century, when enormous efforts were made to put people to death quietly, invisibly, and bureaucratically. The course of the last century is littered with various technologies—hanging, firing squad, electrocution, the gas chamber, lethal injection—used in a continuing effort to find an apparently humane means by which the state could take life. Executions, in this system, are not supposed to make headlines.

Headlines today tell of a remarkable transformation in America's death penalty. Over the course of the last decade, death sentences and executions have both fallen dramatically. We now impose fewer death sentences and execute fewer people than at any time in a quarter century. These changes have been driven by concerns about the reliability of the death penalty system in fairly adjudicating guilt and innocence, and in differentiating those who deserve a death sentence from those who do not. In addition, today the state's dealing in death is linked to a concern for technological efficiency. We are invited, following Dr. Almojera, to imagine the body as a legible text, readable for what it can tell us about the capacity of technology to move us from life to death, swiftly and painlessly—to ensure that execution is nothing more than "the mere extinguishment of life."

But why should the state care about the suffering of those it puts to death? Painful death might be more just and more effective as a deterrent than a death that is quick, quiet, and tranquil. Because justice would seem to demand equivalence between pain inflicted in the crime and the pain experienced as part of the punishment, there is something unsettling and paradoxical about the state's constant search for a painless way of killing those who kill. As Arlene Blanchard, a survivor of Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 people were killed, explained after McVeigh's death sentence was handed down, "death by injection is 'too good' for McVeigh." She said he should be put in solitary confinement for life or simply hanged from a tree. "I know it sounds uncivilized, but I want him to experience just a little of the pain and torture that he has put us through." Or, as William Baay, an emergency worker who helped remove bodies from the Murrah building, put it, "I don't think conventional methods should be used. They should amputate his legs with no anesthesia ... and then set him over a bunch of bamboo shoots and let them grow up into him until he's dead."

Even as capital punishment seeks to do justice and/or satisfy the public desire for vengeance, the state has countervailing concerns. It must distinguish execution from the acts to which it is a supposedly just response. The state must also find ways of killing in a manner that does not allow the condemned to become an object of pity, or to appropriate the status of the victim. But despite determined claims to the contrary, capital death never simply means death. Rather, since its inception, it has been inextricably tied to the instruments used to carry it out. The legitimacy of state killing depends largely on execution method. Technology mediates between the state and death by masking physical pain and allowing citizens to imagine that execution is clean, efficient, and painless.

When executions go wrong, they signal a break in the ritualization and routinization of state killing. Such mishaps can turn the organized, state-controlled ritual into torture. Solemn spectacles of sovereign power morph into horrible events and critical attention gets focused on the evolving execution technologies—and, even more intently, on their failures.

Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty examines the history of botched executions in the United States from 1890 to 2010, a period in which approximately 3 percent of all executions were botched. Botched executions occur when there is a breakdown in, or departure from, the "protocol" for a particular method of execution. The protocol can be established by the norms, expectations, and advertised virtues of each method or by the government's officially adopted execution guidelines. Botched executions are "those involving unanticipated problems or delays that caused, at least arguably, unnecessary agony for the prisoner or that reflect gross incompetence of the executioner." Examples of such problems include, among other things, inmates catching fire while being electrocuted, being strangled during hangings (instead of having their necks broken), and being administered the wrong dosages of specific drugs for lethal injections.

Of approximately nine thousand capital sentences carried out in the United States from 1890 to 2010, we know of 276 that were botched—79 from 1900 to 1919, 70 from 1920 to 1949, 23 from 1950 to 1979, and 104 from 1980 to 2010 (see Appendix A). This book describes the problems that have plagued the technologies of state killing in an effort to understand those numbers as well as how and why things go wrong during executions. It tells the story of America's death penalty through the eyes of those whose executions have gone terribly wrong (see Appendix B).

The book focuses on 1890–2010, which was a crucial period in the transformation of America's capital punishment from its traditional to its more modern form. It was, in addition, a critical period in what death penalty historian Stuart Banner calls "the continual centralization and professionalization of punishment," and in the development of new technologies of execution. In this context, one might expect that botched executions would have undermined the death penalty's legitimacy. As Chris Greer argues,

Botched executions are of particular interest for at least two obvious reasons. First, they represent a direct challenge to the state's desired presentation of capital punishment as quick, clean and painless. Secondly, by making the violence inherent in capital punishment clearly visible, and raising questions about the suffering of the condemned, they present abolitionists with an important opportunity to mobilize support against the continued use of the death penalty.

Yet despite Greer's reasonable expectation, throughout the twentieth century botched executions played only a minor role in efforts to end the death penalty in the United States. This book considers why they have not played a larger role in the efforts of abolitionists to end the death penalty.

The twentieth-century search for ever more invisible, "humane" methods of state killing depended upon certain assumptions about the legibility of pain in the journey from life to death. But the legal construction of state killing, while it appears to reveal an assumed empathy or identification between the state and those it kills, works primarily to differentiate state killing from murder. In these efforts, we are collectively invited to search for a way of taking life that signals our superiority and that marks the distinction between state violence and violence outside the law, between a death we call capital punishment and a death we call murder.

Doing Death Silently, Invisibly

The recent history of state killing in the United States reads like a story of the triumph of progress applied to the technologies of death. From hanging to electrocution, from electrocution to lethal gas, from electricity and gas to lethal injection, the law has moved, though not uniformly, from one technology to another. With the invention of new technologies for killing or, more precisely, with each new application of technology to killing, the law has proclaimed its own previous methods barbaric, or simply archaic, and has tried to put an end to the spectacle of botched executions. Thus, as one judge said about electrocution, "Execution by electrocution is a spectacle whose time has passed—like the guillotine or public stoning or burning at the stake.... Florida's electric chair, by its own track record, has proven to be a dinosaur more befitting the laboratory of Baron Frankenstein than the death chamber of Florida State Prison." Responding to the advent of lethal injection, another judge characterized the continuing use of hanging as "an ugly vestige of earlier, less civilized times when science had not yet developed medically-appropriate methods of bringing human life to an end." Nothing but the best will do in the business of state killing.

This search for a technological fix contrasts markedly with the execution practices of another era. As historian and social theorist Michel Foucault notes, in the past executions were "[m]ore than an act of justice"; they were a "manifestation of force." They were always centrally about display, in particular the display of the majestic, awesome power of sovereignty to decide who suffers and who goes free, who lives and who dies. Public executions functioned as public theater but also as a school for citizenship. Selecting the right method to kill was a matter of sovereign prerogative. Execution methods were chosen for their ability to convey the ferocity of the sovereign's vengeance.

In the past, state killing produced a sadistic relation between the executioner, the victim, and the spectators. The pleasure of viewing, as well as the instruction in one's relation to sovereign power, was to be found in witnessing pain inflicted. The excesses of execution and the enthusiastic response of attending audiences blended the performance of torture with pleasure, creating an unembarrassed celebration of death as one person's sovereign will materialized on the body of the condemned. The display of violence—of the sovereignty that was constituted in killing—was designed to create fearful, if not obedient, subjects. Gruesome spectacles simply accentuated the fearsome lesson.

The act of putting someone to death contained a dramatic, awe-inspiring pedagogy of power. "The public execution," Foucault explained,

has a juridico-political function. It is a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is reconstituted. It restores sovereignty by manifesting it at its most spectacular. The public execution, however hasty and everyday, belongs to a whole series of great rituals in which power is eclipsed and restored (coronation, entry of the king into a conquered city, the submission of rebellious subjects).... There must be an emphatic affirmation of power and its intrinsic superiority. And this superiority is not simply that of right, but that of the physical strength of the sovereign beating down upon the body of his adversary and mastering it.


Excerpted from Gruesome Spectacles by Austin Sarat, Katherine Blumstein, Aubrey Jones, Heather Richard, Madeline Sprung-Keyser. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1 The Mere Extinguishment of Life? Technological Efficiency, Botched Executions, and the Legitimacy of Capital Punishment in the United States 1

2 A Clumsy, Inefficient, Inhuman Thing: Death by Hanging 30

3 When Science Fails: Electrocution 61

4 A Short and Unhappy History: The Gas Chamber 90

5 "How Enviable a Quiet Death": Lethal Injection 117

6 Botched Executions and the Struggle to End Capital Punishment 146

Appendix A Numbers of Botched Executions by Time Period and Method of Execution 177

Appendix B Botched Executions from 1890 to 2010 179

Acknowledgments 211

A Note on Collaboration 212

Notes 213

Index 259

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