Death By Hanging: What Saddam Faced

Saddam Hussein was executed by hanging after his death sentence was upheld by an Iraqi appeals court this week.

Many have wondered what Saddam and others experienced when an executioner pulls the lever to release the trapdoor beneath their feet.

The true answer to this question will likely never be known, but forensic experts say that in all likelihood, the chosen method of execution delivered results that were swift -- and effective.

"Basically it's 'drop, crack, dead' -- if it's done right," said Dr. D.P. Lyle, a cardiologist and author of the book "Forensics for Dummies."

"Usually in judicial deaths of any type…the hallmark of what they want to do is try to do it as humanely as possible," said Dr. James Young, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. "That's the idea, anyway."

"In hanging, it's over really quickly," Young said.

The Physics of Hanging

Though it is arguably one of the oldest methods of execution still in use today, hanging is not a simple matter.

"The problem with hanging is that it is very difficult to calculate what it takes to do it well, to the extent that something like this can be done well," said Austin Sarat, professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts and an expert on judicial killing.

Forensic science suggests that Saddam's death occurred in one of two ways. The first of these, Lyle said, would have occurred if the noose snapped his neck, breaking a bone called the axis.

"If it's done right, what happens is that the weight of the body as it falls basically yanks the neck to one side," he said. "So the axis is either severely damaged or cuts the spinal cord."

"As soon as this happens, it's just like a guillotine."

Severing the spinal cord would have brought about a condition known as spinal shock. Lyle says spinal shock is the physiological equivalent of a total power outage.

"With a blackout, the lights all go out on a power grid," he said. "In the body, the blood vessels all relax almost immediately, and the blood pressure goes down to zero very quickly."

If the rope was too short, however, the speed of Saddam's fall may not have generated enough force to break his neck.

"In this situation, the rope cuts off two things," Lyle said. "The first are the arteries that supply blood to the brain, called the carotid arteries. The other is breathing."

Young said in this case, the lack of oxygen would start the cascade of events that would have led to Saddam's death.

"The major thing that happens here is that you cut off the air supply," Young said. "The loss of consciousness is very rapid. Then you will see some very rapid brain changes, probably including the brain herniating and swelling rapidly."

This leads to a process called "coning," in which part of the brain becomes lodged in the spinal column.

"From that you will see rapid swelling, which leads to respiratory changes," Young said.

The whole process, in this case, would lead to death in just a few minutes. However, Sarat said this possibility is definitely more painful than a broken neck.

"If the rope is not long enough, the person will struggle while they suffocate," he said. "From our understanding, that's quite excruciating."

Whether death comes in seconds or minutes, it is unlikely that Saddam would have maintained consciousness through much of the experience.

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