For some lawmakers, nothing will stop their commitment to the death penalty. International drug companies have refused to provide their drugs for U.S. executions over moral opposition. Courts have held up executions as litigation moves forward over alternative injection drugs to skirt those restrictions. And states like Ohio that are moving forward with the death penalty using a new untried drug that left an inmate gasping for 25 minutes are sure to face more legal challenges going forward.
So they have other ideas, even as the death penalty is falling out of favor nationwide. In Missouri, the state whose attorney general has already proposed the revival of gas chambers and secured court approval of secret lethal cocktail manufacturing, lawmakers are now proposing a bill to bring back firing squads. Wyoming is also floating a firing squads measure, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports. And a Virginia bill that would bring back electrocution passed the Virginia House this week. Virginia is one of several states that now permit death by electric chair only by inmate request.
Although a few states already allow antiquated execution methods in limited circumstances such as if the current method is held unconstitutional, the new bills would give states significantly more leeway to impose these punishments. The Missouri bill now pending would authorize the use of the gas chambers and firing squad as options, regardless of whether lethal injection is deemed unconstitutional. The Wyoming bill would expand the circumstances when firing squad executionis available to include not just when lethal injection is deemed unconstitutional, but also if it is “for other valid reason unable to be performed.”
Electric chair executions require meticulous preparation and can be easily botched. Once the individual is strapped in the chair and blindfolded, surges are administered one at a time, as the doctors wait for the body to cool down to check the heartbeat before administering another jolt until the inmate is dead. Reports note defecation, smoke rising, and flesh burning and blistering during the process.
Gas chamber executions are described as akin to asphyxiation, and former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens cited a range of experts in a dissenting opinion who described the method as “extremely and unnecessarily painful.” One prison warden said after an 11-minute execution that he would quit if forced to perform one again; another warden described “evidence of extreme horror, pain, and strangling.”
Firing squad have been seen as a spectacle that generates a “media circus,” and the method seems to have fallen out of favor mostly because it is seen as less dignified and portrays an image of “brutality,” according to one Utah lawmaker who proposed ending the practice.