States consider reviving old-fashioned executions

With lethal-injection drugs in short supply, lawmakers in some death penalty states are thinking back on old methods: firing squads, electrocutions and gas chambers.
Associated Press
Jan 28, 2014

With lethal-injection drugs in short supply and new questions looming about their effectiveness, lawmakers in some death penalty states are considering bringing back relics of a more gruesome past: firing squads, electrocutions and gas chambers.

Most states abandoned those execution methods more than a generation ago in a bid to make capital punishment more palatable to the public and to a judicial system worried about inflicting cruel and unusual punishments that violate the Constitution.

But to some elected officials, the drug shortages and recent legal challenges are beginning to make lethal injection seem too vulnerable to complications.

"This isn't an attempt to time-warp back into the 1850s or the wild, wild West or anything like that," said Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin, who this month proposed making firing squads an option for executions. "It's just that I foresee a problem, and I'm trying to come up with a solution that will be the most humane yet most economical for our state."

Brattin, a Republican, said questions about the injection drugs are sure to end up in court, delaying executions and forcing states to examine alternatives. It's not fair, he said, for relatives of murder victims to wait years, even decades, to see justice served while lawmakers and judges debate execution methods.

Like Brattin, a Wyoming lawmaker this month offered a bill allowing the firing squad. Missouri's attorney general and a state lawmaker have raised the notion of rebuilding the state's gas chamber. And a Virginia lawmaker wants to make electrocution an option if lethal-injection drugs aren't available.

If adopted, those measures could return states to the more harrowing imagery of previous decades, when inmates were hanged, electrocuted or shot to death by marksmen.

States began moving to lethal injection in the 1980s in the belief that powerful sedatives and heart-stopping drugs would replace the violent spectacles with a more clinical affair while limiting, if not eliminating, an inmate's pain.

The total number of U.S. executions has declined — from a peak of 98 in 1999 to 39 last year. Some states have turned away from the death penalty entirely. Many have cases tied up in court. And those that carry on with executions find them increasingly difficult to conduct because of the scarcity of drugs and doubts about how well they work.

European drug makers have stopped selling the lethal chemicals to prisons because they do not want their products used to kill.

At least two recent executions are also raising concerns about the drugs' effectiveness. Last week, Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die by injection, gasping repeatedly as he lay on a gurney with his mouth opening and closing. And on Jan. 9, Oklahoma inmate Michael Lee Wilson's final words were, "I feel my whole body burning."

Missouri threw out its three-drug lethal injection procedure after it could no longer obtain the drugs. State officials altered the method in 2012 to use propofol, which was found in the system of pop star Michael Jackson after he died of an overdose in 2009.

The anti-death penalty European Union threatened to impose export limits on propofol if it were used in an execution, jeopardizing the supply of a common anesthetic needed by hospitals across the nation. In October, Gov. Jay Nixon stayed the execution of serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin and ordered the Missouri Department of Corrections to find a new drug.

Days later, the state announced it had switched to a form of pentobarbital made by a compounding pharmacy. Like other states, Missouri has refused to divulge where the drug comes from or who makes it.

Missouri has carried out two executions using pentobarbital — Franklin in November and Allen Nicklasson in December. Neither inmate showed outward signs of suffering, but the secrecy of the process resulted in a lawsuit and a legislative inquiry.

Michael Campbell, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said some lawmakers simply don't believe convicted murderers deserve any mercy.

"Many of these politicians are trying to tap into a more populist theme that those who do terrible things deserve to have terrible things happen to them," Campbell said.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., cautioned that there could be a backlash.

"These ideas would jeopardize the death penalty because, I think, the public reaction would be revulsion, at least from many quarters," Dieter said.

Some states already provide alternatives to lethal injection. Condemned prisoners may choose the electric chair in eight states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. An inmate named Robert Gleason Jr. was the most recent to die by electrocution, in Virginia in January 2013.

Missouri and Wyoming allow for gas-chamber executions, and Arizona does if the crime occurred before Nov. 23, 1992, and the inmate chooses that option instead of lethal injection. Missouri no longer has a gas chamber, but Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, and Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican, last year suggested possibility rebuilding one. So far, there is no bill to do so.

Delaware, New Hampshire and Washington state still allow inmates to choose hanging. The last hanging in the U.S. was Billy Bailey in Delaware in 1996. Two prisoners in Washington state have chosen to be hanged since the 1990s — Westley Allan Dodd in 1993 and Charles Rodman Campbell in 1994.

Firing squads typically consisting of five sharpshooters with rifles, one of which is loaded with a blank so the shooters do not know for sure who fired the fatal bullet. They have been used mostly for military executions.

In recent years, there have been three civilian firing squad executions in the U.S., all in Utah. Gary Gilmore uttered his famous final words, "Let's do it," on Jan. 17, 1977, before his execution, which ended a 10-year moratorium on the death penalty.

Convicted killers John Albert Taylor in 1996 and Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010 were also put to death by firing squad.

Utah is phasing out its use, but the firing squad remains an option there for inmates sentenced prior to May 3, 2004.

Oklahoma maintains the firing squad as an option, but only if lethal injection and electrocution are deemed unconstitutional.

In Wyoming, Republican state Sen. Bruce Burns said death by firing squad would be far less expensive than building a gas chamber. Wyoming has only one inmate on death row, 68-year-old convicted killer Dale Wayne Eaton. The state has not executed anyone in 22 years.

Jackson Miller, a Republican in the Virginia House of Delegates, is sponsoring a bill that would allow for electrocution if lethal injection drugs are not available.

Miller said he would prefer that the state have easy access to the drugs needed for lethal injections. "But I also believe that the process of the justice system needs to be fulfilled."

Comments

swiss cheese kat's picture
swiss cheese kat

Like.

Pterocarya frax...

Of course it is doc. Please tell us how the creationists got it right.

YoMamma

Anti death penalty people are all about eye for an eye and two wrongs don't make a right. So we just let people de-evolve back to animals and put them in jail? Take a look around, there acting like animals I elementary school. The kids no longer have parents to show right from wrong. So what are we to do with a society of animals?

Justme...

And how is the death penalty helping all this?? Do you think executions actually lower crime rates?? We have the ability to incarcerate people people for life and its cheaper than the death penalty. Most importantly: Its wrong to take a life.

swiss cheese kat's picture
swiss cheese kat

I think the death penalty is a good thing. Let their last minutes be filled with terror like their victims were!

Rosa

Plus if they knew they truly were going to die if they harm others, maybe it WOULD be a deterrent. But death penalties must be immediate so we do not waste money on these horrible so called human beings.

tk

If death penalties were carried out immediately, there would be more innocent people executed and a murderer running loose in the community.

Truth or Dare

Gotta love the way the drug-traffic/trade laws were ignored to get the drugs in the first place! No "shortage", the countries supplying don't support the death penalty and are refusing to meet America's demand for the "death drugs".

starryeyes83

Good. It's about time.

lugnut2511

Public hangings could be a good way to go, and maybe televise it as well. The more criminals see someone getting hung, im sure the more they're opted to change their paths in life.

Rosa

like

2cents

tattoo an American flag on their forehead, parachute them into Fallujah with a rifle and let mother nature take care of the rest!

swiss cheese kat's picture
swiss cheese kat

LOL.

topcop1991

In all my years of law enforcement, my heart has not hardened enough to say the state deserves the right to take a life. As a christian, I say lock them away for life with no chance of parole.
I always worked on the thought that it was better to let 9 guilty ones go, than arrest 1 innocent one. Same goes for executions.

JMOP

Let nine guilty ones go? Thank goodness your not an attorney or a judge!

No one said it would be easy, unless you're the murderer of course.
Take the case where that soulless human being as a man that killed a mother and her two children. He raped and killed a little three year old girl. Think of the pain, hopelessness, fear that she went through. The final moments of her life. That's heartbreaking. That's barbaric. Then tell me you would let nine of him go.

So the answer to some is to keep them in cages like animals for the rest of their life. Could the victims family have alone time with the animals as they see fit? Vengeance is not the word, justice is!

Nemesis

"Let nine guilty ones go? Thank goodness your not an attorney or a judge!"

Or a Founding Father? He was paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, who, in setting the foundational principles for our justice system, said "better 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man hang." You clearly don't grasp the basic principles of our justice system. As for the victims, unchecked government power has killed far more people than all the scumbags in history.

queenjhb

JMOP ,I agree, cheap solution ,Bleach & ammonia, They'll be gone in minutes. Sitting in prison for 20 years while awaiting death, is a bit much.

Kottage Kat

The Bible has no problem with capital punishment. So A man sheds blood so shall his blood be shed. Can't quote chapter and verse it's in there.
Tell that 22 year old pregnant victem who was raped strangled and had her throat slit, with his DNA on her and in her. He gave her a death penalty. She didn't get 25 years to think it over. Who is going to Sue for her slow agonizing death.
I am also a Christian and say let the punishment fit the crime.

Kottage Kat

JMOP,
Good post. That would have been my next topic.

44846GWP

Barbaric.

sfoley3603

put them on the "shot" side of 'Power Tower' at Cedar Point, but without a harness. do it right before Luminscity. Allow guests to bid on where the body will land, and give them a giant stuffed animal to the winning guess

tonto

Put them in prison for the rest of their lives. Lets feed them, give them medical, dental, showers daily, 3 meals a day, cable vision, allow them to get a masters degree. Yeah that sound good. Maybe we should convict all elderly people in nursing homes for a crime and put them in prison so they get taken care of like all the P.O.S. in prison.

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