Execution Problems Revive Talk of Using Firing Squads and the Electric Chair

The future of capital punishment could look a lot like its past

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Missouri currently has two options to carry out its death penalty: lethal injection and the gas chamber. But prison officials are struggling to obtain the drugs needed for lethal injections, and the state’s sole gas chamber is a defunct relic inside the vacated Missouri State Penitentiary, which is now a tourist attraction. So State Representative Rick Brattin came up with a solution: bring back firing squads.

He isn’t the only local legislator to entertain the idea. Wyoming State Senator Bruce Burns earlier this year announced his own bill to introduce firing squads, which have never been used in Wyoming. And in Virginia, Delegate Jackson Miller wants the state to be able to use the electric chair on condemned inmates if lethal injection drugs are unavailable.

These calls to return to abandoned forms of capital punishment come as many of the 32 states with the practice are encountering growing complications over performing executions. The latest occurred Jan. 16, when Ohio death row inmate Dennis McGuire reportedly gasped several times and made snoring and snorting noises during the prolonged process, which lasted almost 20 minutes. Ohio administered a two-drug combination – midazolam and hydromorphone – that had never been used before.

“I watched his stomach heave. I watched him try to sit up against the straps on the gurney. I watched him repeatedly clench his fist. It appeared to me he was fighting for his life but suffocating,” McGuire’s son, also named Dennis, who was present at the execution said at a press conference.  I can’t think of any other way to describe it than torture.”

McGuire’s family plans to sue the state for inflicting cruel and unusual punishment and a number of state legislators have since joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to urge Governor John Kasich to suspend executions in Ohio.

“This is not about Dennis McGuire, his terrible crimes, or the crimes of others who await execution on Death Row,” the ACLU wrote to Kasich. “It is about our duty as a society that sits in judgment of those who are convicted of crimes to treat them humanely and ensure their punishment does not violate the Constitution.”

(MORE:The Hidden Hand Squeezing Texas’ Supply of Execution Drugs)

Since 2010, states have had difficulty obtaining the drugs most often used in the standard three-drug lethal injection cocktail, notably sodium thiopental, because its sole U.S. maker stopped producing the drug. Many states turned to pentobarbital as an alternative, but European manufacturers soon refused to sell the drug to corrections departments for use in executions. That has forced many states to tinker with their lethal injection protocols, which in McGuire’s case meant an untested combination.

Now, some states are looking to older execution methods as both a back-up plan in case they run out of lethal injection drugs and as more humane alternatives.

“I think it’s more inhumane to have someone strapped to a chair, watching a doctor poke them with a needle 10 times and then watch the drug flow down an IV to put them to sleep like a dog,” says Brattin, a Missouri Republican. “I’m sorry, I find that more inhumane versus a blindfold and your sentence being carried out by a firing squad.”

The state began using pentobarbital in a one-drug protocol in November 2013, but it’s unclear how much of the drug remains. Brattin’s bill would add firing squads made up of five law enforcement officers as an alternative to lethal injection. While Brattin’s bill has received some support from fellow Republicans, he’s also gotten some pushback — most notably from U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, who tweeted: “Not my state’s finest moment.”

In Wyoming, Burns, a Republican, says he recently discovered that the only alternative to lethal injection on the books in his state was the gas chamber, but Wyoming doesn’t have one that’s operational. ��The state of Wyoming doesn’t want a gas chamber,” he says. “The expense of building one would be problematic, and I consider it a much more gruesome form of death than a firing squad.”

(MORE: Ohio’s Lethal-Injection Experiment)

Burns, whose legislation that would make firing squads a secondary form of execution in the state, says his bill was triggered in part by watching the lethal injection problems play out around the U.S.

Miller, a Republican from Virginia, says his goal is to ensure that the state can electrocute prisoners if lethal injection drugs run dry. Currently, death row inmates can choose between lethal injection and electrocution. Virginia is one of just eight states that still uses the electric chair, but Miller wants the department of corrections to be able to override an inmate’s choice of lethal injection if execution drugs aren’t available. Last week, a House subcommittee approved the bill 4-1 while voting down another bill that would’ve outlawed the electric chair altogether.

“What we must do is revert to older methods that a company in Europe can’t stop and is still found to be constitutional,” he says. “And I believe that’s death by electrocution.”