Thus, although biblical law seems harsher to our modern
eyes, 1 and prosecutors often use it today to argue for harsher punishments, in practice it was not so. The extensive procedural protections in Jewish law assured that these punishments rarely, if
ever, occurred. If they were imposed, the procedures were conducted in a way that minimized pain and indignity to emphasize
the sanctity of life. 2
Again, an eye for an eye was not about retribution, but about
A Classical Death THE GREEKS: Plato in the Laws supported the death penalty. 3
But, in a precursor to the framers of the Eighth Amendment,
Plato in the dialogue Gorgias has Socrates identify the goal of all
punishment as correction and deterrence, not retribution:
He who is rightly punished ought either to become better and
profit by it, or he ought to be made an example to his fellows,
that they may see what he suffers, and fear to suffer the like,
and become better. 4
The logical extension of Plato’s philosophy on capital punishment then would be the execution of Socrates in 399 B.C. for
impiety—an execution wholly unjust because Socrates the
philosopher had no need of state correction (as he argued to his
detriment to the jury deciding death), and his execution was not
to deter evil but in fact deterred good. Again, Plato underscores
the wrongness of retribution, the true motive behind Socrates’
trial and execution.
The Athenians executed Socrates by having him take hem-
lock. 5 Plato accurately described death by hemlock in the Phaedo. 6
1. The closest modern execution method to stoning would have to be death by
Death by Firing Squad or Shooting: Several soldiers or peace officers
form the firing squad, who fire simultaneously to prevent identifying who fired the
lethal shot. Often a single shot (coup de grâce) from an officer or official follows
the initial volley to assure death. Traditionally, one unknown squad member has a
blank cartridge, allowing each member the chance he did not fire the fatal shot.
Although an experienced marksman can tell the difference between a blank and
a live cartridge from the recoil, there is a significant psychological incentive not to
pay attention and to remember the recoil as soft (i.e., like the recoil of a blank
cartridge). For procedure and cause of death, see Arif Khan & Robyn M.
Leventhal, Medical Aspects of Capital Punishment Executions, 47 J. FORENSIC SCI.
847, 848 (2002).
3. PLATO, THE LAWS, BOOK VIII, Chapter 16. “… if
someone is proved guilty of a murder, having
killed any of these peoples, the judges' slaves
will kill him and throw him naked in a cross-road,
out of the city; all the judges will bring a stone in
the name of the whole State throwing it on the
head of the corpse, then will bring him out of the
State’s frontier and will leave him there unburied;
this is the law.”
2. Irene Merker Rosenberg & Yale L. Rosenberg, Lone Star Liberal Musings
on “Eye for Eye” and the Death Penalty, 1998 UTAH L. REV. 505.
4. Plato, Gorgias quoted
in Edward M. Peters,
Prison Before the Prison: The Ancient and Medieval
Worlds, in NORVAL MORRIS & DAVID J. ROTHMAN,
EDS. THE OXFORD HISTORY OF THE PRISON 5 (1998 ).
In a precursor to the middle ages discussed below,
Plato has Socrates note the benefit of pain in correction:
Those who are improved when they are punished by gods and men, are those whose sins are
curable; and they are improved, as in this world so
also in another, by pain and suffering; for there is
no other way in which they can be delivered from their evil.
As we will see, this foreshadows a key aspect of medieval punishment.
When courts martial impose the death penalty, they commonly use a firing squad
such as Breaker Morant’s execution during the Boer War, rendered into the very
good courtroom drama movie BREAKER MORANT (Roadshow Entertainment 1980), or
when the U.S. Army executed Private Eddie Slovik in 1945. Some jurisdictions traditionally use the firing squad at first light or sunrise, giving the term “shot at dawn.”
Gary Gilmore was the first person to be executed after the death penalty
was reinstated in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976),
after Furman v. Georgia, 408 U. S. 238 (1972), and he
chose to die by firing squad on Jan. 17, 1977, at the Utah
State Prison. The five executioners had . 30-30 caliber rifles
and off-the-shelf Winchester 150-grain ( 9. 7 g) Silver Tip
ammunition and fired from 20 feet ( 6 m) at his chest.
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of death
by shooting in Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130 (1878).
The Third of May, Francisco Goya
5. The Death of Socrates, David (1787)
“The man … laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet
and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said ‘No’;
then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us
that he was growing cold and rigid. And then again he
touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he
would be gone. The chill had now reached the region
about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been
covered, he said—and these were his last words,
‘Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius, pay it and do not neglect it.’ ‘That,’ said Crito, ‘shall be done; but see if you
have anything else to say.’ To this question he made no
reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant
uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he
saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.”
SONG (1979) is a
about the events
6. Death by Hemlock.
The killing substance in
hemlock is coniine, a neurotoxin, which disrupts the
peripheral nervous system.
It causes death by blocking the neuromuscular
junction creating an
ascending muscular paralysis that eventually stops
the respiratory muscles
withholding oxygen to the
heart and brain. Artificial
ventilation can save the person until the toxin wears off.
Death by Lethal Injection would have to be the closest
modern form to the hemlock death penalty. This involves
injecting a person with fatal doses of poison. Lethal injection for capital punishment generally replaced other supposedly less humane forms of execution such as electrocution, hanging, firing squad, gas chamber or decapitation. Method: Although states vary, most jurisdictions have
the executioners fasten the condemned to a table and put
an intravenous tube in each arm (one is a backup). The
executioners attach one tube to the lethal injection
machine in another room and start drips into each arm
with saline solution. They monitor the condemned with a
heart monitor. Executioners then send a “cocktail” down
the tube in the following order:
1. Sodium thiopental—an ultra-short action barbiturate
and anesthetic that renders the condemned unconscious in seconds
2. Pancuronium/ Tubocurarine—a non-depolarizing muscle relaxant causing complete muscle paralysis including the diaphragm and the rest of the respiratory muscles and would eventually cause an asphyxial death.
3. Potassium chloride—a chemical that stops the heart,
Rosenberg & Rosenberg at 1170; Khan & Leventhal at
847. This “cocktail” may be truly cruel because the condemned may actually feel great pain from the final agent
of death, the potassium chloride, because the second
agent, the pancuronium/tubocurarine, renders him completely paralyzed and unable to scream. This was the
main issue the Supreme Court heard in Baze v. Rees, 553
U. S. ___ (2008), when it ruled that Kentucky’s lethal
injection was not unconstitutional. Thus, death by hemlock
may indeed be a much more humane method as Plato’s
description of Socrates’ death shows. The last time the
Supreme Court ruled on a method of execution was more
than 100 years ago in
Wilkerson v. Utah,
(1879) upholding the
use of a firing squad
and In re Kimmler
(1890), upholding the
use of the electric chair.