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10 Morbid Facts About The Death Penalty

by Mike Devlin
fact checked by Jamie Frater

The death penalty is as old as the concept of justice itself and surely older than such punishments as jail sentences or financial reparations. One can argue the relative pros and cons of putting men to death for years and it will remain the kind of hot-button issue that likely has no right or wrong answer. Despite your viewpoint, the death penalty is a subject of keen interest, a confluence of human evil, finance, and visceral history.

10 Too Fat To Hang


Hanging might seem like a relatively simple proposition, but it has complications. Suspending or a very short drop, as typically seen in suicides, can result in a long, agonizing death from strangulation. Too long a drop causes decapitation. The procedure is best performed by measuring the person’s weight against the length of the drop to result in a broken neck, paralysis, and a quick death.

This equation, however, is thrown off by morbidly obese men who are too heavy to hang without risk of a gruesome beheading. Such was the case of Mitchell Rupe, a bank robber who shot two tellers dead in Washington State. Rupe was sentenced to death, but at the time, the only form of capital punishment performed in Washington was hanging. Rupe, who weighed over 180 kilograms (400 lbs), argued that he was too fat to be executed in such a fashion and that doing so would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Rupe was subjected to numerous court proceedings and was twice sentenced to die. In 1994, a federal judge ruled that he was too heavy for hanging. A third trial resulted in a deadlock, and he was eventually relegated to life behind bars. Mitchell Rupe died of liver disease in 2006.

9The Lennie Small Rule


John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is familiar to many readers. A high school English staple, the novella follows two migrant workers during the Great Depression: shrewd George and developmentally disabled Lennie. Lennie had a heart of gold but didn’t know his own strength, and death came frequently at his guileless but crushing touch. At the end of the story, Lennie accidentally murders a woman, and George kills him humanely before he can face a cruel justice he wouldn’t have been able to understand.

The state of Texas, when determining their criteria of those eligible to receive capital punishment, seized quite naturally on this character, much to the consternation of Steinbeck’s son. In 2002, the US Supreme Court ruled that “mentally retarded” people cannot be executed, but it left the precise definition of “retarded” open-ended so that each state could determine its own standard. Most sources would claim retardation comes into play whenever someone possesses an IQ of less than 70.

Unfortunately, determining mental ability through use of an unscientific fictional character allows for the system to be easily manipulated. On August 7, 2012, the state of Texas executed Marvin Lee Wilson, a murderer who possessed an IQ of just 61—despite a massive public backlash. The issue has come into play throughout the US. On January 24, 1992, Ricky Ray Rector was executed for the murder of a police officer. Just after shooting Officer Robert Martin, Rector attempted to commit suicide, firing a bullet into his brain that essentially lobotomized him. His mental function deteriorated so much that during his last meal, he told guards that he would save his dessert “for later.” In Georgia, a battle rages over the life of Warren Lee Hill, a man with an IQ of 70 who has been condemned to death. The US Supreme Court has refused to hear his claims.

8 The Guillotine Was Used In Modern Times


We tend to think of the guillotine as a relic of a bygone age, chopping off heads topped with powdered wigs. But this instrument of death was hardly retired with the French Revolution. The guillotine was used extensively by the Nazi regime during World War II. France continued to use it to inflict capital punishment for nearly 200 years after Marie Antoinette lost her head. In 1977, a Tunisian named Hamida Djandoubi became the last person in France to be executed by the guillotine. Djadndoubi had been condemned to death for torturing and murdering his ex-girlfriend. In 1981, the death penalty was outlawed by newly elected President Francois Mitterrand.

7 Does The Head Remain Alive After Decapitation?


The guillotine was designed to be both humane and efficient, but there’s something truly visceral and chilling about the concept of decapitation. Certainly the worst of it is the notion that death doesn’t come quickly, and that the head remains alive for some interminable period afterward. History is full of anecdotal tales of heads which responded to their names when called. When assassin Charlotte Corday was guillotined in 1793, her face was slapped, and some in attendance claimed to have seen a look described as “unequivocal indignation” cross her face at the transgression.

The difficulty of proving this one way or the other is obvious, and scientists haven’t been able to definitively answer the question. However, our advanced understanding of the circulatory system leads most to believe that a severed head would only be able to maintain consciousness for a few seconds after being divorced from its shoulders due to the sudden drop in blood pressure. Anything resembling lucid expressions are attributed to involuntary muscle twitching as the brain shuts down.

6 Code Of Hammurabi


The Code of Hammurabi is an ancient set of 282 Babylonian laws written circa 1772 B.C. It’s a comprehensive litany of rules dealing with situations as diverse as slavery, minimum wage, and incest. The code lists the punishments for dozens of transgressions and is noted for its use of the “eye for an eye” reciprocity theory of justice. The Code could certainly be considered draconian by today’s standards; it introduces the death penalty, which is enforced for 25 different crimes, including adultery and allowing slaves to escape. Other crimes that warranted capital punishment included false accusation, kidnapping children, and breaking and entering. Strangely enough, murder is not one of the crimes that warrants the death penalty. Killing another person’s slave would result in a fine, and deadly medical malpractice resulted in the doctor having his hands cut off.

5 Legality


Most countries in the world maintain a largely abolitionist attitude toward the death penalty, including the entire European Union, which considers capital punishment a violation of fundamental human rights. Even Russia, a land with a rich history of executions, has put a moratorium on the death penalty, not having used it since 1996. In Israel, the death penalty is only legal during wartime. It has only been exercised once—the hanging of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in 1962.

However, the four most populous countries on the planet—China, India, the US, and Indonesia—all continue to practice the death penalty. Slowly but surely, countries throughout the world have moved away from capital punishment. Rome’s Colosseum (which saw more carnage and human rights violations than most entire countries during its history) is usually lit with white lights, but glows golden for two days in celebration.

4 China’s Mobile Execution Vans


China executes more people than every other country in the world combined. The exact numbers are unknown, as China treats executions as a state secret. Estimates vary as to the true number, most zeroing in at around 3,000. But with China’s enormous population, it could easily be two or three times that.

Traditionally, these killings were performed by firing squad, but in modern times, the lethal injection has also become an option—likely to allow the government to profit from selling the organs of the condemned. Bizarrely enough, they have begun using mobile execution vans, small buses that can travel to the rural portions of China that don’t have the facilities to otherwise carry out the procedure. It’s remarkably easy for a criminal to back into the death penalty: There are dozens of transgressions that warrant death, including tax evasion, drug trafficking, and counterfeiting. Until 1997, one could be put to death for killing a panda.

3 The Real Braveheart


Historians have had a field day exposing the inaccuracies present in the movie Braveheart, a biopic of the life of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace. The entire film would prove to be a study in dramatic license, from the pivotal battle of Stirling Bridge (which took place on a field in the movie) to the cowardly depiction of Robert the Bruce.

Surprisingly enough, in one aspect, they actually dialed things back. At the end of the film (spoiler alert), Wallace is captured and executed publicly. The movie plays coy with the scene, letting sound effects and Gibson’s anguished expressions tell the tale. The real Wallace suffered unimaginably; he was eviscerated, his guts burned before him, his manhood hacked unceremoniously away. And then his arms and legs were chopped off before the axe finally fell over his head.

2Men Are Boiled In Uzbekistan


While calling any form of the death penalty “humane” may be a bit of a stretch, modern methods—hanging, firing squads, guillotines, the gas chamber, the electric chair, and especially lethal injection—are designed to be quick and to not inflict any excessive suffering. Historical executions were often gruesome and torturous, crucifixion being rather tame compared to methods like the breaking wheel or crushing by elephant.

If you’ve ever felt sorry for a lobster dropped into a pot, you may want to stop reading now. While boiling hasn’t been the most common form of execution, it has precedent in both Europe and Asia. But the horrifying practice has hardly been left to the history books. In Uzbekistan, a republic splintered from the former Soviet Union, human rights are a dubious commodity. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, reported horrifying stories from his time in the country. Citizens came to him to detail tortures not limited to rape and beatings. Murray also claimed that the government of Uzbekistan literally boiled people to death as punishment, a claim backed by forensic reports.

1 Expense


At first glance, it would seem that executing a prisoner would be relatively inexpensive, certainly less so than keeping a man incarcerated for his entire life. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the drugs used to carry out a lethal injection cost a mere $83, but the execution itself is hardly the major expense. The cost of carrying out the death penalty is enormous—millions of dollars per condemned prisoner.

The majority of this cost is from court fees; cases in which the prosecution seeks the death penalty tend to drag out, and the aftermath of sentencing is often an endless round of appeals. New Jersey, which has not executed a single person in 50 years, has spent over $250,000 on their capital punishment system. In California, where over 700 people sit on death row (and where there is currently a moratorium on the whole messy business) it has been estimated that each execution has cost over $300 million. So toothless is the California death penalty system that some inmates have requested death just so they could have a single cell to themselves.

Mike Devlin is an aspiring novelist.

fact checked by Jamie Frater