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What Is an Executioner?

The guillotine was invented in the late 18th century as a quick, accurate way to decapitate a criminal.
An electric chair in the former Louisiana State execution chamber.
San Quentin State Prison, which houses the only death row for male inmates in California.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 21 April 2014
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An executioner is a person tasked with carrying out death sentences on behalf of the government. Executioners receive special training in the techniques authorized by the government for executing prisoners, and they supervise the process of executions, including making arrangements for witnesses, preparing the site of the execution, and making sure the necessary equipment is in good working order. Depending on where an executioner works, a degree in criminal justice may be needed, and some also have law enforcement or medical training to assist them in carrying out their jobs.

This profession is ancient, as human cultures have been using the death penalty for thousands of years. A variety of techniques have been used in execution since ancient times, ranging from methods designed to be rapid and humane to torture techniques intended to make the condemned suffer before death. Some examples include beheading, hanging, lethal injection, electrocution, and stoning. In some cultures, the death sentence also spells out the method to be used, while in others, the condemned may be permitted to choose between several available options.

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People working as executioners often face social stigma. Even in cultures where the death penalty is widely accepted, the people involved in carrying out death sentences may be viewed with unease or suspicion. Historically, executioners were hooded to conceal their identities with the goal of preventing reprisals and eliminating stigma. In the modern era, it is not uncommon for the executioner to work concealed from witnesses and the prisoner, using remote control systems for the execution. People who work in this field often do not disclose the nature of their work at a prison, for personal and security reasons.

The work of an executioner involves making sure prisoners are executed in a timely and correct fashion. It does not include questions of guilt, innocence, and wrongful conviction. Executioners may choose not to seek out information about the prisoners they work with in the interests of remaining impartial. While they may have medical training, they are not doctors, as medical ethics forbid doctors in most regions of the world from assisting with executions. This has been a topic of controversy in some regions, as some people argue that physicians who choose to assist are providing a humane service to prisoners by ensuring they are not subjected to painful methods of death.

Prisons with openings for executioners may not readily advertise them due to the social attitudes associated with the death penalty. Often, members of prison staff are recruited internally, typically learning on the job by assisting with executions until they can take over as executioner.

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