Theoretically, America is barred from making prisoners endure "cruel and unusual punishment" during death penalty executions. But—surprise!—things get cruel and unusual all the time.
Case in (infuriating) point: Russell Bucklew, a convicted murderer in Missouri, has asked for a stay on his execution and that it be videotaped for future litigation, because he suffers from a congenital condition that could make the pending lethal injection (using a drug the prison system won't reveal) go cruelly and unusually awry.
Bucklew told The Guardian that he worried the execution "wouldn't work" and that he'd turn into a "vegetable." There's precedent for his concern; earlier this year, a botched Oklahoma injection led a man to writhe in pain for nearly 45 minutes before dying of a heart attack.
Late yesterday, a judge halted Bucklew's execution just an hour before it was set to take place, which suggests the Supreme Court will consider the order today. Does Bucklew stand a chance? Not likely. As an affidavit filed with his videotape motion notes:
Missouri's execution protocol provides no contingency for a failed execution, or a situation in which the prisoner starts gasping for air or experiences hemorrhaging.
That's right: no contingency for a prisoner who hemorrhages from a failed execution. Alas, this isn't the only "fun" fact about our death penalty system. Get ready, folks, for some un-sweet justice.
Don't Hijack an Aircraft! In Georgia and Mississippi, You Could Get the Death Penalty
There are 11 states that allow for the death penalty in cases other than murder, mostly for treason. In Georgia, "hijacking an aircraft" could lead to death; in Mississippi, "aircraft piracy" (basically, hijacking a plane while "in flight") could lead to the same. For its part, New Mexico doesn't take kindly to spying, and has "espionage" on its list of execution-able offenses.
Surprise! Racism Alive and Well
A 2011 study found that in Louisiana, the chances of getting the death penalty were 97% higher for those whose victims were white vs. those whose victims were black. No, seriously! 97% higher. A 2005 study revealed that in California, those who killed whites were three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks, and four times more likely than those who killed Latinos. Rounding out the trifecta of racism-affirming research: a 2001 study which revealed that in North Carolina, criminals with white victims were 3.5 times more likely to be put on death row.
Surprise Again! Texas Has Killed Way More People Than Other States
Since 1976, the Lone Star State has executed 510 people. This is about five times higher than the next-highest states, Virginia and Oklahoma, both of which have executed 110 people. As of a few years ago, Texas would have ranked seventh in the world for executions if it were an independent country, between (hello, bad company) North Korea and Somalia.
Actually, This Really is Kind of Surprising: How the U.S. Stacks Up Against Other Countries
As it turns out, the United States is the only country in the entire Western Hemisphere with the death penalty. In Europe, just one country maintains the death penalty: Belarus. In terms of the number of people executed, the U.S. ranks fifth, trailing only (more shady company) China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Check out this fascinating infographic for more.
Wait, You Can Die by Firing Squad?
While most states use lethal injection as a means of execution, weirder methods have been employed over the years. Oklahoma and (in some cases) Utah still allow for death by firing squad, which was last employed just a few years ago in 2010. If this sounds weirdly old-fashioned, that's because it is: in 1608, a firing squad was used in the nation's first official execution. Since 1608, other execution methods have included being bludgeoned on a wheel, being burned to death and (in one very uncomfortable case) being pressed between two heavy objects.