Wyoming has become the latest death penalty state to consider a return to the firing squad, while Tennessee's governor has signed a bill to bring back the electric chair, amid a scarcity of lethal injection drugs and legal battles over the secrecy that surrounds their purchase and use by jurisdictions that impose capital punishment.
Legislators in Wyoming have begun to draft a bill they plan to introduce at the state's next legislative session that would reintroduce executions at the point of a gun. The move was prompted, elected members said, by the drought in lethal injection drugs caused by a pharmaceutical suppliers' boycott of US death chambers.
On Thursday night the Tennessee governor, Bill Haslam, approved the reintroduction of the electric chair in cases where drugs for lethal injection could not be acquired.
The turning back of the clock on execution methods adds to a mounting sense of crisis across the US in the practice of the death penalty, which is arguably more profound that at any time since a federal moratorium was imposed by the supreme court in Furman V Georgia in 1972. Utah is also considering reviving the firing squad, which it abolished for all death sentences handed down since 2004, and states including Missouri have debated the return of the gas chamber.
On Wednesday night a 24-hour legal drama was brought to an end in Missouri by the US supreme court when it ordered an indefinite stay of execution for Russell Bucklew who had been set to be put to death by lethal injection. The nine justices sent the case back down to the 8th circuit appeals court and though they did not specify what should happen, they made their preferences known when they said that they left it for the lower courts to consider “whether an evidentiary hearing is necessary”.
Bucklew’s lawyers will now be pressing for a full hearing in a federal district court of their argument that the prisoner is at risk of suffering an inhumane execution as a consequence of the secrecy with which the state has shrouded the supply of its lethal drugs, combined with his own unique medical condition. Bucklew has a rare congenital illness that causes malformation of the veins in his face, neck and head which medical experts have warned could cause the lethal injection process to go disastrously wrong.
Cheryl Pilate, Bucklew’s attorney, told the Guardian that she would push for a detailed evidentiary hearing that would allow her to call medical experts able to talk authoritatively about Bucklew’s particular issues. She would also address the question of secrecy in lethal injection drugs, specifically Missouri’s imposition of new rules that keep the source of its chemicals hidden.
“The secrecy that surrounds these drugs creates immense risks. Those risks are heightened in a very particular way with my client’s medical condition, but they exist anyway for all prisoners,” she said.
She added that in her view the state’s determination to execute Bucklew had been reckless. “There needs to be more transparency. There is no function of government more grave than the death penalty and yet the whole process is shrouded in secrecy.”
The state of Missouri has been served with a legal challenge by the Guardian, Associated Press and the three largest local papers that argues its refusal to disclose how it is obtaining supplies of lethal drugs is a violation of the public’s first amendment right to know how government is acting in its name. The case is pending in a Missouri circuit court.
Wyoming’s consideration of the firing squad is a product of its own struggle to obtain lethal injection drugs in the wake of the European-led pharmaceutical boycott. The state currently has no supplies available that could be used in an execution.
Utah is the only state to have practiced death by firing squad in the modern era, most recently in 2010. The method has to be requested by the condemned prisoner, as it was most famously in 1977 by Gary Gilmore.
Tennessee's decision, meanwhile, made it the first state to reintroduce the electric chair without giving prisoners another option, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
"There are states that allow inmates to choose but it is a very different matter for a state to impose a method like electrocution," he said. "No other state has gone so far."
Dieter told the Associated Press he expected legal challenges to arise if the state decided to go through with an electrocution, both on the grounds of whether the state could prove that lethal injection drugs were not obtainable and constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Republican state Senator Ken Yager, a main sponsor of the electric chair measure, said in a recent interview that he introduced the bill because of "a real concern that we could find ourselves in a position that if the chemicals were unavailable to us that we would not be able to carry out the sentence".
Deborah Denno, a Fordham University specialist in execution methods, said that the surge of interest in alternative processes such as the firing squad was partly a result of mounting unease about the lethal injection in the US. Last month the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, in which he took 43 minutes to die and writhed and groaned on the gurney, caused a wave of nationwide revulsion.
“There have been botches after botches using lethal injections – and those are only the ones we know about. Death penalty states have created the facade that there is something medical going on in the death chamber, that they are putting people to sleep when in fact prisoners are paralysed and could be tortured.”
Denno has studied the history of the firing squad in the US, and found that in most of the cases in which it was used it was relatively quick and effective. In 1938, a “human experimentation” was carried out on a 42-year-old inmate who was executed by firing squad, with his heart monitored using electrocardiograph tracing. The results showed that his heart was electrically “silent” within a matter of 20 seconds.
Gilmore quivered when he was shot in the heart with four bullets, and pronounced dead after two minutes.
The only known case of a botched execution by firing squad, in 1951 in Utah, appears to have been an act of vengeance on the part of five trained marksmen pulling the trigger. They targeted the wrong side of the prisoner’s chest, apparently intentionally, and he bled to death. http://www.theguardian.com/world/201...uads-execution