The five death penalty options in the U.S. today


Lethal injection

First adopted in 1977 in Oklahoma, inmates are generally strapped to a gurney while needles are inserted into the veins and the drugs are pumped in. This method is often seen as the most humane of the five because the inmates are supposed to be sedated before they die. Inmates, though, have been known to writhe and talk during poorly carried out injections.


New York developed electrocution as an alternative to hanging and executed the first inmate by electric chair in 1890. Prisoners generally are strapped into a chair with electrodes placed on their heads and legs. The voltage, the number of jolts and the length of time they are administered vary by state. Executioners usually give more than one jolt to ensure death.

Gas chamber

Nevada developed the gas chamber in the 1920s. Inmates are strapped into a chair inside a sealed chamber that is then filled with cyanide gas, which kills by asphyxiation.

Firing squad

This method was used as recently as 2010 in Utah. The prisoner is strapped to a chair. A cloth target is placed over the prisoner’s heart. Several shooters are given real bullets but one or more are given blanks. Assuming the shooters hit their target, the heart ruptures and the prisoner dies quickly.


Before 1890, hanging was the principal method of execution across the country. The prisoner stands over a trap door while a noose is placed around the person’s neck, and then the trap door is opened and the prisoner falls. By design, the fall breaks the prisoner’s neck and kills him or her, but in some cases, prisoners have been decapitated from the fall.