US death-row inmates could face firing squad

Dennis McGuire: Gasped for breath for 26 minutes
Dennis McGuire: Gasped for breath for 26 minutes
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With lethal-injection drugs in short supply in America, some death penalty states are considering bringing back relics of the past – firing squads, the electric chair and the gas chamber.

Most states abandoned such methods more than a generation ago in a bid to make capital punishment more palatable to the public and to a judiciary worried about inflicting “cruel and unusual” punishments in breach of the constitution.

But to some elected representatives, the drug shortages and recent legal challenges are beginning to make lethal injection too vulnerable to sustain.

“This isn’t an attempt to time-warp back into the wild, wild West or anything like that,” said Missouri representative Rick Brattin, who recently proposed the firing squad option. “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.”

Mr Brattin, a Republican, said questions about the injection drugs would 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 done.

A Wyoming politician proposed a bill to allow the firing squad and Missouri’s attorney-general and a state representative have suggested rebuilding its gas chamber. And a Virginia politician wants to make electrocution an option if lethal-injection drugs aren’t available.

US states began moving to lethal injection in the 1980s in the belief that powerful sedatives and heart-stopping drugs would replace sickening spectacles with a more clinical affair while limiting an inmate’s pain.

The total number of US executions has dipped from 98 in 1999 to 39 last year. Some states have eschewed the death penalty entirely.

In recent years, European drug companies have stopped selling the lethal chemicals to US prisons on moral grounds.

At least two recent executions have also raised concerns about the drugs’ effectiveness. Last week, Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die by injection, gasping as he lay with his mouth opening and closing. And on 9 January, Oklahoma inmate Michael Lee Wilson’s horrific last words were: “I feel my whole body burning.”

Missouri threw out its three-drug lethal injection after it could no longer obtain the drugs. State officials altered the method in 2012 to use propofol, the drug that killed pop star Michael Jackson.

The European Union then threatened to impose export limits on propofol if it were to be used in executions, jeopardising the supply of an anaesthetic needed by US hospitals.

The state then announced it had switched to a form of pentobarbital made by a compounding pharmacy. Missouri won’t name the provider. Missouri has carried out two executions using pentobarbital – Joseph Paul 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 an inquiry.

Michael Campbell, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St Louis, said some politicians simply don’t believe convicted murderers deserve any mercy.

“Many are trying to tap into a more populist theme that those who do terrible things deserve to have terrible things happen to them,” he said.

And Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Centre in Washington, cautioned: “These ideas would jeopardise the death penalty because, I think, the public reaction would be revulsion.”