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Contrary to the notion that hanging a person can bring unconsciousness and painless death, errors can cause some to die with intense pain. Is there a more humane way to execute?

By Sachin Dhawan

In the wake of Yakub Memom’s execution, much ink has been spilled on debating the desirability of retaining the death penalty in India. But what has not been examined as closely is the means by which the death penalty is administered. Abandoned in many other parts of the world, judicial hanging is still relied upon in India to carry out death sentences.
Section 354 (5) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, specifies that a person sentenced to die shall be “hanged by the neck till he is dead”.

While earlier incarnations of the noose might have been rudimentary and unscientific, the long drop method currently in use allegedly brings about immediate unconsciousness and painless death via “dislocation of the cervical vertebrae” (cervical fracture).

However, recent evidence generated by medical studies undermines the view that hanging is painless. As a result of errors that preclude the occurrence of cervical fractures, hangings can be painful and gruesome. A 1992 investigation conducted in the UK found cervical fractures in only six out of 34 people hanged by the long drop method.

Another study, conducted in 2009, confirmed that cervical fracture is only one of many “pathways” by which death will result in a hanging. An American appeals court, referring to the long drop method, confirms that “the legendary ‘hangman’s fracture’ or cervical fracture is one of the less common routes to unconsciousness and death”.

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 Justice PN Bhagwati feels hanging inflicts physical torture and pain

These findings show that there is no way to ensure that cervical fracture will always or even routinely occur in a hanging. Hanging is thus akin to a game of chance, wherein a cervical fracture may or may not occur. Not surprisingly, Rajesh Pande, a critical care specialist in Delhi and secretary of the Indian Society of Critical Care Medicine, National Capital Region, concludes that a “more humane method of execution would be lethal injection”.

In the absence of cervical fractures, “hanging is undoubtedly accompanied by intense physical torture and pain” in the words of Justice PN Bhagwati. In fact, painful and gruesome routes to death like strangulation and decapitation occur with an alarming degree of frequency. For instan-ce, the 1992 investigation referred to above found that almost half of the hanged persons died partially or entirely due to strangulation.

It turns out, moreover, that hanging victims can experience intense pain even when cervical fractures occur. Dr Phillip D Swanson, former head of the neurology department at the University of Washington has testified that “even if the spinal cord is severed instantaneously (resulting in a cervical fracture), this does not necessarily cause unconsciousness”. The conscious victim undergoes a torturous experience wherein he feels the intense pain of his neck being dislocated. Such “lingering deaths” are cruel and degrading.

Making matters worse is the severe shortage of hangmen in India. As journalist Haima Deshpande points out, central prisons across the country cannot secure the services of hangmen “even though the candidate need not have any previous experience nor does he have to be literate”. Both the Supreme Court of Washington and in India endorse the notion that hanging involves considerable skill. But India cannot even secure the services of unskilled and inexperienced hangmen.

Even if India were to secure the services of people willing to do the job of hangmen, unlikely though that circumstance may
be, hangings are still unlikely to become scientific. This is because they are performed so infrequently that experience and skill are that much harder to accumulate. So the chances of a botched hanging remain intolerably high.

Distressingly, even skill by hangmen would probably not make hanging an error-free science, as experiences in both the UK and the US attest. In his book, “A History of Capital Punishment,” author John Lawrence says: “[e]ven in nineteenth-century Engl-and… when professional and experienced hangmen followed carefully calculated tables and conducted hangings regularly, it was not uncommon for the executioner to select either too short a rope…or too long a rope…” The American case, State v. Frampton highlights similar accounts of botched long drop hangings. So the chances that hangings will be conducted scientifically in a climate of scarcity of skilled and experienced hangmen are extremely low.

Thus, medical evidence clearly shows that errors in hanging cause some people to die very painfully and gruesomely. Subjecting someone to such a risk of error is anything but just, fair and reasonable.

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