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, 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.”
Brattin, a Republican, 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 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 aren’t 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.
States began moving to lethal injection in the 1980s in the belief that powerful sedatives and heart-stopping drugs would replace the violent spectacles with a more clinical affair while limiting, if not eliminating, an inmate’s pain.
The total number of U.S. executions has declined in recent years — from a peak of 98 in 1999 to 39 last year. Some states have turned away from the death penalty entirely. Many have cases tied up in court. And those that carry on with executions find them increasingly difficult to conduct because of the scarcity of drugs and doubts about how well they work.
In recent years, European drug makers have stopped selling the lethal chemicals to prisons because they do not want their products used to kill.
Missouri threw out its three-drug lethal injection procedure after it could no longer obtain the drugs. State officials altered the method in 2012 to use propofol, which was found in the system of pop star Michael Jackson after he died of an overdose in 2009.
The anti-death penalty European Union threatened to impose export limits on propofol if it were used in an execution, jeopardizing the supply of a common anesthetic needed by hospitals across the nation. In October, Gov. Jay Nixon stayed the execution of serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin and ordered the Missouri Department of Corrections to find a new drug.
Days later, the state announced it had switched to a form of pentobarbital made by a compounding pharmacy. Like other states, Missouri has refused to divulge where the drug comes from or who makes it.
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. Arizona, Missouri and Wyoming allow for gas-chamber executions. 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 possibility 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 U.S. 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.
Firing squads typically consisting of five sharpshooters with rifles, one of which is loaded with a blank so the shooters do not know for sure who fired the fatal bullet. They have been used mostly for military executions.
Since the end of the Civil War, there have been three civilian firing squad executions in the U.S., all in Utah.
WALLA WALLA — Washington state law specifies two methods of execution, hanging and lethal injection. Adding another method, such as a gassing or firing squad, would require action by the Legislature.
The Legislature changed the law in 1996 to specify that executions in Washington state will be carried out by lethal injection unless the inmate sentenced to the death penalty chooses hanging.
On March 8, 2010 the Department of Corrections changed its method of execution by lethal injection from a three-drug cocktail to single-drug method consisting of 5 grams of sodium thiopental. The change made Washington state the second in the nation after Ohio to adopt the one-drug method. The change was made in response to a challenge by three death row inmates to the state’s lethal injection procedure.
In July of that year the Washington state Supreme Court ruled unanimously to dismiss challenges to the lethal injection protocol and lift the stay of execution for Cal Coburn Brown, whose execution was set for September of the same year. Executions of other inmates on death row remain on hold pending litigation of other issues.
Brown was executed on Sept. 10, 2010. No other executions have been carried out since then.
By law, all executions are carried out at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
— Andy Porter of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin