Bring back firing squads?
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.
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."
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.
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.
Since the end of the Civil War in the 1860s, 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 what amounted to a 10-year national moratorium on the death penalty.
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