States reconsider some old execution methods

Drug shortages make violent modes an option

The firing squad chamber at a Utah prison. A Missouri lawmaker has proposed making the firing squad an option.

Associated Press/File 2010

The firing squad chamber at a Utah prison. A Missouri lawmaker has proposed making the firing squad an option.

ST. LOUIS — 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 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 Representative 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.’’

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Brattin, a Republican, said questions about the 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 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 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 US 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 stopped selling the 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. Earlier this month, Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die by injection, gasping repeatedly as he lay on a gurney. 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.

The antideath 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. In October, Governor 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. Franklin was executed in November and another prisoner in December.

On Tuesday night, the US Supreme Court granted a temporary stay of execution for Missouri death row inmate Herbert Smulls, 2½ hours before he was scheduled to die.

Smulls’s lawyer, Cheryl Pilate, had made last-minute pleas to spare his life, focusing on the state’s refusal to disclose from where it obtained the pentobarbital.

Missouri has argued that the compounding pharmacy is part of the execution team — and therefore its name cannot be released to the public.

Pilate said the stay is temporary while the high court reviews the case.

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

Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington state still allow inmates to choose hanging. The last hanging in the United States was in 1996.

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