By Gabrielle Simeck ’18
Throughout this year, I’ve been writing capital punishment updates and chronicling the lethal injection debate. In March, a new series of developments emerged. States are beginning to realize that the reputation of lethal injection is in decline. Due to limited imports of chemicals needed for lethal injection, states have been hard pressed to collect the necessary chemicals for the execution procedure. As result, a movement in state legislatures supporting alternative means of execution has been gaining strength in the past few weeks.
A bill in the Oklahoma state legislature passed on March 3, 2015 legalizing the use of nitrogen gas to execute death row inmates with a 85-10 vote. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Christian (R-Oklahoma City) said of the legislation, “I believe it’s revolutionary. I think it’s the best thing we’ve come up with since the start of executions by the government.” No counter debate was heard on the bill. The Supreme Court is currently considering Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedures and investigating the chemical cocktail involved in the botched executions of 2014. Should lethal injection drugs become unavailable, or the Supreme Court rule Oklahoma’s chemical cocktail unconstitutional, nitrogen hypoxia would replace lethal injection and become Oklahoma’s first choice as an execution procedure.
Alabama elected officials are also seeking out alternatives to lethal injection. The Alabama House passed a measure to recommence the use of the electric chair as an execution procedure. Lynn Greer (R-Rogersville), the bill’s sponsor, stated before the chamber, “the system we have today, we all know it is not working.” The bill passed 76-26. Alabama used the electric chair until 2002, when lethal injection replaced its use. For Rep. Greer and other members of the Alabama House of Representatives, the re-emergence of the electric chair is the solution to a broken system. The bill also included an amendment which would allow the identities of manufacturers of lethal injection drugs to be kept confidential from the public. In a previous post, I commented on the problems concealment poses. The measure now moves to the Alabama State Senate.
In Utah and Wyoming, firing squads are on the table. Representatives from the Utah State Senate and House of Representatives voted to reinstate the firing squad as an execution procedure. If lethal injection drugs become unavailable, the firing squad would function as a backup option. In Wyoming, firing squads also won initial support. However, the bill will not be finalized until the Wyoming State Congress begins its new legislative session.
Lethal injection has been the most widely-supported means to execute death-row prisoners for the last few decades in American politics. Now that European embargoes have put pressure on states, state representatives and senators are scrambling to find new replacement procedures. However, these “new” solutions are often relics from the past. It is truly astounding that states are reconsidering the revival of the firing squad and electric chair. Even new technologies such as nitrogen hypoxia are not widely accepted. Such measures are unlikely to pass in the vast majority of states. As lethal injection becomes difficult to carry out, more and more states, desperate to continue capital punishment, will seek out these increasingly radical solutions. If the Supreme Court rules that the lethal injection cocktails used in Oklahoma violate the 8th amendment, it’s unlikely that firing squads and the electric chair will be upheld. States may back themselves into a corner of radical alternatives and consequently contribute to the unraveling of capital punishment itself.