States consider reviving old-fashioned executions

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ST. LOUIS -- 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, a Republican 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."

Mr. Brattin 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 Mr. 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 are not 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.

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."

Some states already provide alternatives to lethal injection. Condemned prisoners may choose the electric chair in eight states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. An inmate named Robert Gleason Jr. was the most recent to die by electrocution, in Virginia in January 2013.

Missouri and Wyoming allow for gas-chamber executions, and Arizona does if the crime occurred before Nov. 23, 1992, and the inmate chooses that option instead of lethal injection. Missouri no longer has a gas chamber, but Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, and Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican, last year suggested the possibility of rebuilding one. So far, there is no bill to do so.

Delaware, New Hampshire and Washington state still allow inmates to choose hanging. The last hanging in the United States was Billy Bailey in Delaware in 1996. Two prisoners in Washington state have chosen to be hanged since the 1990s -- Westley Allan Dodd in 1993 and Charles Rodman Campbell in 1994.

Jackson Miller, a Republican in the Virginia House of Delegates, is sponsoring a bill that would allow for electrocution if lethal injection drugs are not available.

Mr. Miller said he would prefer that the state have easy access to the drugs needed for lethal injections. "But I also believe that the process of the justice system needs to be fulfilled."


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