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January 28, 2014

A useful reminder that many states still have lots of execution methods on the books

This lengthy AP article, headlined "Stated Consider Reviving Old-Fashioned Executions," provides an effective review not only of recent problems with lethal injection as an execution method, but also of the options that lots of states still have available.  Here are excerpts:

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....

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 in recent years — 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. In recent years, 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."...

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.

Arizona, Missouri and Wyoming allow for gas-chamber executions. 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. Since the end of the Civil War, 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. 18, 1977, before his execution, which ended what amounted to a 17-year national 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."

January 28, 2014 at 02:16 PM | Permalink


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The Supreme Court was going to hear a case involving electrocution but the issue was avoided. If pressed, that is likely to raise serious 8A/14A concerns. The gas chamber probably as well. Hanging? Probably the best option litigation wise of the three. The firing squad to me is likely, given the non-injection options, the best bet. But, it is probably the one with the least support.

The usage in Utah at least probably was influenced by Mormon religious beliefs.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 28, 2014 2:57:47 PM

I am still somewhat amazed that no state has tried going with neutral gas asphyxiation. It could keep many of the trappings of a pseudo-medical procedure while remaining something that we have actual knowledge of the experience, since it is something that can be survived if interrupted.

I would actually be somewhat surprised if cyanide based poison gas or electrocution were to survive a Baze challenge.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jan 28, 2014 3:44:13 PM

One of the problems with the firing squad is that it can leave a lot of blood about. Condemned prisoners aren't the kinds of people who've led lives of high moral purity. I suspect there will be heavy resistance from the prison guards, who may fear contracting some blood-borne disease from handling the corpse and cleaning up the blood. Those may be risks they are paid to take. I don't see how the state could compel the removal and cleaning to be done by other inmates, instead of by the guards.

Posted by: Greg Jones | Jan 29, 2014 3:12:32 PM

One state that has an alternative means is Missouri -- it also allows gas but it does not current has a gas chamber.


As to Mr. Jones, the person can be given a blood test to determine if s/he has any disease. Also, there has to be some handling of the inmate with lethal injection, which involves injection after all. As to cleaning up the corpse, I can imagine a special disposable room. There also are people who clean up blood at crime scenes and other places where that would be a concern. So, I think that isn't really a no win situation.

As to the use of a different sort of gas, that's a possibility, but I think "gas" might be tainted in the minds of some, even if the connection to cyanide gas would be misleading.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 29, 2014 11:26:47 PM

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