As supplies of lethal injection drugs dry up, desperate lawmakers and officials in several states are reconsidering more archaic methods of execution, including gas chambers, firing squads and electrocution.
Lawmakers fear that lethal injection, once seen as a humane alternative, could be in danger as drug supplies run thin and states try new lethal concoctions with unpredictable, sometimes horrifying, results. A Guardian review of death penalty cases in Texas found that executions have taken an average of twenty minutes longer since the state switched from a three-drug combination to one drug, pentobarbital. This month, Ohio’s execution of Dennis McGuire using a new cocktail took twenty-five minutes, with witnesses reporting him “gasping and choking” for up to fifteen.
The new round of death penalty proposals highlights states’ commitment to the practice, as the US execution rate declines and European drug makers halt sales to corrections services on moral objections to capital punishment.
Two states, Missouri and Wyoming, are considering bills that would make the firing squad an option in executions. Wyoming State Senator Bruce Burns, a Republican, introduced a proposal on January 13 that would grant officials permission to use trained marksmen to execute inmates should lethal injection drugs become unavailable.
A week later, Republicans in Missouri introduced a similar proposal. State Representative Paul Fitzwater, a Republican co-sponsor, said the bill “is a statement to let people know we’re serious about [the death penalty].”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s execution database, only three firing squad executions have taken place in modern US history, all of them in Utah. Utah is phasing out the practice, making Oklahoma the only state in the United States that currently allows the practice “if both lethal injection and electrocution are held unconstitutional.”
Laws in Arizona, Missouri and Wyoming currently allow lethal gas as a secondary method to lethal injection, although neither Missouri nor Wyoming owns a functional gas chamber. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has suggested building a new one. Addressing his firing squad bill, Wyoming Representative Burns argued that, compared with the gas chamber, the firing squad is a less cruel method of execution, as well as “one of the cheapest for the state.”
A bill in Virginia would grant the state permission to use electrocution if lethal injection drugs are not available. Virginia, along with Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee, currently gives inmates the option to choose between electrocution and lethal injection. The new proposal, introduced by Republican State Delegate Scott Surovel, would make Virginia is the only state that could default to electric chair executions.