In the final days of 2006, former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein was hanged for the 1982 murders of 148 people in Dujail, Iraq. While capital punishment is still on the books in many countries around the world, death by hanging has in many cases been replaced by more sterile killing methods like lethal injection, which some believe to be a more humane form of execution. Many people might be surprised to learn that hanging, when carried out with modern techniques, can be one of the quickest and most painless ways to be executed.
The modern method of judicial hanging is called the long drop. This is the method that Iraqi officials used to execute Saddam Hussein. In the long drop, those planning the execution calculate the drop distance required to break the subject's neck based on his or her weight, height and build. They typically aim to get the body moving quickly enough after the trap door opens to produce between 1,000 and 1,250 foot-pounds of torque on the neck when the noose jerks tight. This distance can be anywhere from 5 to 9 feet (1.5 to 2.7 meters). With the knot of the noose placed at the left side of the subject's neck, under the jaw, the jolt to the neck at the end of the drop is enough to break or dislocate a neck bone called the axis, which in turn should sever the spinal cord. In some cases, the hangman jerks up on the rope at the precise moment when the drop is ending in order to facilitate the breakage.
This is the ideal situation in a long drop. When the neck breaks and severs the spine, blood pressure drops down to nothing in about a second, and the subject loses consciousness. Brain death then takes several minutes to occur, and complete death can take more than 15 or 20 minutes, but the person at the end of the rope most likely can't feel or experience any of it.
On the next page, we'll learn about other kinds of hangings and how they cause death.