Gruesome Spectacles
Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty
Austin Sarat


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.”1 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.”2

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.3

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 his execution. 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.4

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.”5 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,”6 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.7 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.’8 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.”9

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.’10 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.”11 And others defended his botched electrocution by noting that it “was much more humane than what was done to the victim.”12

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.”13 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.14 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.15 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.16 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 painlessly17—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.”18 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.”19

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.20 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.”21 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).22 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,”23 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.24

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.25 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.26 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.”27 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.”28 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.”29 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.30 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.31

Capital punishment was precisely about the right of the state to kill as it pleased, and sovereignty was known in and through the very act of taking life. Executions were designed to make the state’s dealings in death majestically visible to all. Live, but live by the grace of the sovereign; live, but remember that your life belongs to the state. These were the messages of executions in an earlier era.

Without a public audience state killing would have been meaningless. As Foucault put it, “Not only must the people know, they must see with their own eyes. Because they must be made afraid, but also because they must be witnesses, the guarantors of the punishment, and because they must to a certain extent take part in it.”32 According to this understanding of punishment, the people were, at one and the same time, fearful subjects, authorizing witnesses, and lustful participants.

Today, execution, with some notable exceptions, has been transformed from dramatic spectacle to cool, bureaucratic operation, and the role of the public is now strictly limited and strictly controlled. Modern executions are carried out behind prison walls in what amounts to semiprivate, sacrificial ceremonies in which only a few selected witnesses are gathered in a carefully controlled environment to see and, in their seeing, to sanctify the state’s taking of the life of one of its citizens.33

Capital punishment has become, at best, a hidden reality. It is known, if it is known at all, by indirection. Hugo Bedau, a distinguished philosopher and ardent abolitionist, noted that “The relative privacy of executions nowadays (even photographs of the condemned man dying are almost invariably strictly prohibited) means that the average American literally does not know what is being done when the government, in his name and presumably on his behalf, executes a criminal.”34 What was public is now private. What was high drama has been reduced to a matter of technique.

Whereas the technologies of killing deployed by the state were once valued precisely because of their gruesome effects on the body of the condemned, today we seek a technology that leaves no trace. While in the past technologies were valued as ways of making sovereign power awe-inspiring and terrifying, today the process of state killing is medicalized; it is less about sovereignty than science. Executions

were progressively stripped of their ritualistic and religious aspects. . . . [A]s Americans developed a keen dread of physical pain, medical professionals teamed up with . . . engineers to devise a purportedly “painless” method of administering the death penalty. . . . The condemned man. . . . had now become simply the object of medico-bureaucratic technique—his body read closely for signs of pain. . . . The overriding aim of the state functionaries charged with conducting executions nowadays is to “get the man dead” as quickly, uneventfully, impersonally, and painlessly as Nature and Science permit.35

Since the earliest recorded execution in America in 1608, the state has put approximately 17,000 men and women to death.36 “We’ve sawed people in half, beheaded them, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, tied them to anthills, buried them alive, and [executed them] in almost every way except perhaps boiling them in oil.”37 Today, however, five methods of execution are legally available: firing squad, hanging, lethal gas, electrocution, and lethal injection. Lethal injection is an authorized method of execution in thirty-two states. The firing squad is legal only in Oklahoma (but only if lethal injection and electrocution are declared unconstitutional), while New Hampshire and Washington allow death by hanging in addition to lethal injection. Four states (Arizona, California, Missouri, and Wyoming) allow the use of lethal gas and nine more permit electrocution.38

This array of methods stands in stark contrast to the end of the nineteenth century when hanging was America’s primary method of execution. In 1888, when New York became the first state to substitute death by electrocution for hanging, it did so because an expert commission found it to be “the most humane and practical method known to modern science of carrying into effect the sentence of death.”39 States that eventually followed New York’s lead “viewed (electrocution) as less painful than hanging and less horrific than having the condemned swing from the gallows.”40 In time, states that rejected hanging in favor of the gas chamber viewed the latter as “more decent” than electrocution since it seemed less violent and did not mutilate the body.41 The original legislation authorizing the use of gas stipulated that the condemned was to be put to death “without warning and while asleep in his cell.”42

Similar concerns about decency have been echoed in the most recent development among the technologies of state killing. Upholding the constitutionality of lethal injection, a federal district court recently noted that “There is general agreement that lethal injection is at present the most humane type of execution available and is far preferable to the sometimes barbaric means employed in the past.”43 This is hardly the language of the survivors and families of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing or the awe-inspiring sovereignty about which Foucault wrote. It begs the question, What exactly is at stake when the state imagines itself executing decently, painlessly, humanely, and flawlessly?

[End of Excerpt]


1. See Claude Moore, “The Story of Art Kinsauls,” Our Heritage (October 18, 1991),

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. “Murderer Hanged Twice,” Washington Post (September 29, 1900).

6. Ibid.

7. See, for example, “Flames Erupt During Florida Execution: Gruesome Scene Renews Debate on Electrocutions,” USA Today (March 26, 1997), 3A.

8. “Flames Erupt in Electric Chair’s Death Jolt; Execution: Fire Shoots from Florida Man’s Head, Renewing Capital Punishment Debate,” Los Angeles Times (March 26, 1997), 1.

9. “Retire ‘Chair’ Use Lethal Injection,” Sun-Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) (March 26, 1997), 22A.

10. “Inmate Catches Fire in Florida Electric Chair: ‘You Could Smell the Acrid Smoke,’Houston Chronicle (March 26, 1997), 6A.

11. Jones v. Butterworth, 701 So. 2d 76, 77 (1997).

12. “Inmate Catches Fire,” 6A.

13. “Retire ‘Chair’ Use Lethal Injection,” 22A.

14. See Robert Johnson, Death Work: A Study of the Modern Execution Process (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1990).

15. Several scholars have written about the history of the death penalty and its medicalization, sterilization, and privatization. For example, Deborah Denno has written extensively on the medical appearances associated with lethal injection, as well as the changes in middle-class culture in the twentieth century that left American citizens in search of cleaner, more humane methods of execution. See Deborah Denno, “The Lethal Injection Quandary: How Medicine Has Dismantled the Death Penalty,” 76 Fordham Law Review (2007), 49–128. In addition, Stuart Banner writes that the early twentieth century saw “the continual centralization and professionalization of punishment” and the development of new technologies of execution. Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

16. See Charles Ogletree and Austin Sarat, eds., The Road to Abolition? The Future of Capital Punishment in the United States (New York: NYU Press, 2009).

17. Abernathy argues that “contrary to what logic seems to dictate, the attempt over time has been to make the penalty of death gentle, hidden, and antiseptic.” See Jonathan Abernathy, “The Methodology of Death: Reexamining the Deterrence Rationale,” 27 Columbia Human Rights Law Review (1996), 422.

18. “Those Left Grief-Stricken by Bombing Cry for Vengeance,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (June 4, 1997), News, 1A.

19. Ibid.

20. As Berg and Radelet suggest, any effort to accurately count botched executions is likely to “underestimate the true number of state killings that have been botched. . . . Given the relative privacy in which executions are carried out and the reluctance of prison personnel to admit and publicise bungles, other cases of botched executions for which no public record exists . . . are quite possible.” See Marian J. Berg and Michael L. Radelet, “On Botched Executions,” in Capital Punishment: Strategies for Abolition, Peter Hodgkinson and William A Schabas, eds. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 145–46.

21. Ibid., 144.

22. We, like Berg and Radelet, “consider our compilation of cases a catalogue of examples of botched executions, not a definitive list.” Ibid., 146.

23. Banner, Death Penalty, 206.

24. Chris Greer, “Delivering Death: Capital Punishment, Botched Executions and the American News Media,” in Captured by the Media: Prison Discourse in Popular Culture, Paul Mason, ed. (Portland, OR: Willan, 2006), 84. “One route,” Berg and Radelet argue, “towards the demise of the executioner is to document and publicise the inhumanity and barbarity of the ways in which his work is conducted. People who otherwise support the death penalty may grow uncomfortable with their positions if confronted with direct evidence that executions are bloody, painful and/or torturous.” See Berg and Radelet, “On Botched Executions,” 144.

25. Thomas Metzger, Blood and Volts: Edison, Tesla, and the Electric Chair (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1996).

26. See Allen Huang, “Hanging, Cyanide Gas, and the Evolving Standards of Decency: The Ninth Circuit’s Misapplication of the Cruel and Unusual Clause of the Eighth Amendment,” 74 Oregon Law Review (1995), 995.

27. Dissenting opinion by Justice Shaw in Jones v. Butterworth, 87.

28. Judge Reinhardt dissenting in Campbell v. Wood, 18 F3d 662, 701 (1994).

29. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage Press, 1977), 50.

30. Petrus Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984). Also V.A.C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770–1868 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), ch. 2.

31. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 48–49.

32. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 58.

33. See Johnson, Death Work, 5. Also Susan Blaustein, “Witness to Another Execution,” Harper’s Magazine (May 1994), 53; and Richard Trombley, The Execution Protocol: Inside America’s Capital Punishment Industry (New York: Crown, 1992).

34. See Hugo Adam Bedau, The Death Penalty in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 13.

35. Michael Madow, “Forbidden Spectacle: Executions, the Public and the Press in Nineteenth-Century New York,” 43 Buffalo Law Review (1995), 466, 469.

36. Huang, “Hanging, Cyanide Gas,” 997.

37. Ian Gray and Moira Stanley, A Punishment in Search of a Crime: Americans Speak Out Against the Death Sentence (New York: Avon Books, 1989), 19–20.

38. The numbers add up to more than thirty-two (the number of states using capital punishment) because statutes often permit more than one means of execution.

39. In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436, 444 (1890).

40. Abernathy, “Methodology of Death,” 404.

41. Ibid.

42. William Bowers with Glenn L. Pierce and John F. McDevitt, Legal Homicide: Death as Punishment in America, 1864–1982 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1984), 12.

43. Hill v. Lockhart, 791 F. Supp. 1388, 1394 (1992). See also Ex Parte Kenneth Granviel, 561 S.W. 2d 503, 513 (1978). The court found that “The Texas Legislature substituted death by lethal injection as a means of execution in lieu of electrocution for the reason it would be a more humane and less spectacular form of execution.” As Justice Anstead argued in Provenzano, “[J]ust as electrocution may have been originally evaluated in comparison with hanging, we know today that the overwhelming majority of death penalty jurisdictions have long since rejected use of the electric chair and have turned to lethal injection as a more humane punishment.” See Provenzano v. Moore, 744 So. 2d 413, 446 (1990).