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US executions go from town square to behind bars

Associated Press Modified: May 23, 2012 at 2:17 am •  Published: May 23, 2012
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America's executions have changed dramatically over the years, morphing from daylong events in the town square to somber and tightly controlled affairs held deep inside prisons.

Driving the change was the quest for a less gruesome — even less painful — method of execution.

Along the way, the public saw less of what happens when the state puts an inmate to death.

Today, nearly all of the 34 states that use lethal injection restrict access to half of every execution, shielding from view the portion when the condemned enters the death chamber and the IV lines are inserted.

In early America, hanging was the standard.

Typically, hundreds of spectators would pack the town square or hanging ground, bringing picnics and listening to sermons, said Trina Seitz, a death penalty expert at Appalachian State University.

By the 1800s, politicians were growing concerned that the atmosphere had grown too festive.

Spectators sometimes got more violence than they bargained for. If the hanging rope was too short, the condemned would slowly suffocate. If it was too long, he would be beheaded.

Starting in the 1820s, states began moving hangings inside prison yards.

Over the following decades, another development began to affect the way people viewed pain: anesthesia.

Doctors were using it to keep their patients from feeling pain, and that made them used to the idea that pain was avoidable, said Stuart Banner, a legal historian and professor with UCLA's School of Law.

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