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A Simple Fix for Our Execution Problem

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Posted on May 27, 2014

By T.L. Caswell

  The firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. State Rep. Paul Ray hopes to bring back firing squads to take the place of lethal injections. AP/Trent Nelson

What happens in prison death chambers is something most Americans dislike thinking about. But amid news of our executioners bungling as the materials of their craft grow ever more scarce, of officials scrambling to bring back old methods of execution, of outcries from capital-punishment opponents, it is almost impossible to avoid being mentally drawn into those small rooms where lives are extinguished. 

Last Thursday the governor of Tennessee signed a bill requiring that condemned criminals be executed by electric chair if the state did not have the means to conduct lethal injections. “... [A] brutal alternative” was the response of Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

On the same day it was reported that Wyoming state legislators were considering a change that would permit firing-squad executions. State Rep. Stephen Watt, who was shot as he was working as a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper, opposed the move: “... I don’t care how quickly death comes from firing squad. It still hurts and it’s still terrifying. And I think it’s cruel and unusual.”

In January a bill was introduced in the Missouri Legislature that would add a firing-squad option. Claire McCaskill, a U.S. senator from Missouri, tweeted in reaction: “Not my state’s finest moment.”

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In February a new bill in the Louisiana House sought to have the electric chair as an option. But there’s a problem—the state does not have a working electric chair. The one that was used for decades is a museum piece at the Angola penitentiary.

Going back to the electric chair in the second decade of the 21st century? Restoring the firing squad? It’s as if sectors of American officialdom, dead set on having ways to continue to kill some of our citizens, are marching rearward into a harsher phase of history.

Public rumbling over the death penalty is on the rise. Early this month, the CNN website published an article that said:

A botched lethal injection in Oklahoma [the Clayton Lockett execution] has catapulted the issue of U.S. capital punishment back into the international spotlight, raising new questions about the drugs being used and the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. ...

What went wrong [April 29] in Oklahoma “will not only cause officials in that state to review carefully their execution procedures and methods,” said Richard W. Garnett, a former Supreme Court law clerk who now teaches criminal and constitutional law at the University of Notre Dame, “it will also almost prompt many Americans across the country to rethink the wisdom, and the morality, of capital punishment.”

It’s unfortunate that the cause of the upsurge in public attention is a series of executions that went wrong, but, as we will see later, the situation may offer an opening for change.

Here’s a quick look at bits of background and at the events and forces that are shaking the American way of government-sanctioned death.

— — —

Lethal injection is the normal form of execution in more than 30 states, and more than 1,200 convicts have been dispatched by that method since 1976. Some states authorize other ways of execution under certain circumstances. Eighteen states have abolished the death penalty.

Over recent decades a high percentage of U.S. executions have used lethal injection, usually employing three drugs in sequence—sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. The first quickly produces deep unconsciousness and in high concentrations can kill; the second is a muscle relaxant that can produce fatal paralysis in high doses; the third quickly stops the heart. This standard protocol was created in 1977 by Dr. Jay Chapman, a physician and forensic pathologist who then was chief medical examiner for the state of Oklahoma.

In the last few years executioners have had great difficulty in getting the drugs they want, especially sodium thiopental. U.S. and foreign sources of this and other execution drugs began drying up in 2011 under pressure on suppliers from an international campaign against capital punishment. Dieter said last year: “Many states will have to change their method of execution, which means regulatory changes that have to be approved and lengthy court challenges. In many states, this could take months, if not years, delaying executions.”

The situation has caused states to look to other chemicals. Some states, such as Ohio, are now using two drugs instead of the usual three. “In the old three-drug combination, each drug was being used for what it was designed for,” Jonathan Groner, a clinical surgery professor at Ohio State University, said. “But Ohio is taking drugs that are normally used for things like a colonoscopy, and they’re giving massive overdoses to kill people. They’re using them for their toxic side effects.”

— — —

Clayton Darrell Lockett died of a heart attack last month. He was 38 years old.

Not many mourned, for Lockett was no angel. The word “devil” was what came to mind for some people who read about his crimes, which included having a teenager buried alive.


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