Evolving Standards of Decency? An Historical Look at the Methods of Execution Used in the United States

by Melissa Sykes
Criminology and Criminal Justice
Faculty advisor: Dr. Neal McNabb

Throughout the history of the United States there have been many different methods used to carry out executions of those sentenced to die for their crimes.  These methods have varied greatly through the years, ranging from the breaking wheel and burning at the stake in colonial times to hanging and electrocution through much of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Currently, lethal injection is the execution method of choice in the United States among states that employ capital punishment.  Widely used in death penalty states and considered the “standard” method to execute in our society, the lethal injection process is considered relatively painless to the inmate, though it is not without its flaws.  It has recently been argued that even the most widely used method is still not an adequate solution due to issues that call the constitutionality of lethal injection into question.  

The goal of this project is to provide a detailed look at the methods of execution in our society, with a specific focus on the issues surrounding lethal injection. Special attention is given to the concept of “evolving standards of decency”, which is used to determine if a particular execution method is a violation of contemporary moral standards and, therefore, considered “cruel and unusual” punishment.  An assessment of former and current execution methods is also incorporated in this project, including execution procedures and death of the inmate, potential issues associated with each method that could constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment, and a history of the evolution of execution methods in the United States.