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Theory Behind the Death Penalty Study

Bloody Executions and Sadism

Rainey Bethea Hanging Vicarious Sadism I

To understand motives, the Death Penalty Study explored acceptable methods of execution favored by death penalty supporters on the mock jury. Methods of execution vary widely in the degree of overt violence and bloodshed involved. Lethal injection using a 3-drug cocktail seems quite humane.


One drug relaxes the muscles, a second drug puts the condemned to sleep, and the third drug stops the heart of the unconscious prisoner.

Such executions are sometimes 'botched' (about 7%) with the condemned suffering prolonged and painful deaths.

Compare lethal injection to the gas chamber, where the condemned chokes on cyanide gas for up to ten minutes before dying. Compare that to the electric chair where the condemned is burned to death with 500-2,000 volts of electricity. Compare that to bloody executions with firing squads, a single bullet fired through the back of the head, or severing the head from the body at the neck. Hanging physically breaks the neck or kills through slow strangulation, depending on how far the condemned drops before the rope violently breaks the fall. Hanging sometimes causes the head to be ripped from the body. The most brutal form of execution used in the world today is stoning, the 'go-to' method of execution in the Old Testament. Stoning involves throwing rocks at a person buried to his or her chest. Medium-sized rocks are thrown by a crowd at the head and upper body of the conscious victim. Death is slow, painful, and intentionally cruel. As you will see, actors in executions (members of a death penalty jury) differ greatly in the methods of execution they support.

Implicit in methods of executions favored is the issue of sadism, deriving pleasure from inflicting suffering and pain on others, especially in a degrading manner. While beyond the scope of this study, sadism often involves sexual gratification for those inflicting pain. In this study, researchers examine both actual sadism and vicarious sadism. Actual sadism was measured by asking if women and men being executed should be made to physically suffer while they die. Vicarious sadism is a spectator activity where one enjoys watching others commit sadistic acts on victims. Vicarious sadism was measured by asking people if they favored executions before large crowds and executions carried live on TV. Sadism, and especially vicarious sadism, created major schisms among the different groups of death penalty supporters on the jury (execution actors).

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