Debate on Execution Methods Intensifies

IT may be one of the most macabre questions a state can face: What is the best way to put someone to death?

That question is reverberating in the wake of the execution this week of Robert Alton Harris in the California gas chamber, the state's first sanctioned killing in 25 years.

The issue is coming under new scrutiny both because many consider gas an inhumane way to put someone to death, and because of the endless legal challenges it has prompted, such as those which nearly stopped the Harris execution Tuesday.

This week state Assemblyman Thomas McClintock (R) introduced legislation that would replace the gas chamber as the state's method of execution with lethal injection.

Debate on a similar move is under way in Arizona, which on April 7 conducted the first execution in 30 years in its gas chamber.

The McClintock bill would give the 328 inmates currently on death row in California the option of gas or chemical syringe. Lethal injection would be mandatory for all new death sentences handed down.

Mr. McClintock, a death-penalty supporter who believes the gas chamber is an appropriate method of execution, nevertheless says lethal injection would be quicker, more merciful, and would avoid the controversy over cyanide that can lead to delays in executions.

"It places the death penalty on still firmer ground," he says.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in trying to prevent Mr. Harris's execution, filed a last-minute suit charging that death by gas violated the United States Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Based on the appeal, federal courts issued one temporary restraining order and three stays between Saturday and Tuesday barring the execution. Each was overturned in the end by the US Supreme Court.

OF the 36 states which have a death penalty, only three - California, Arizona, and Maryland - prescribe gas. Three others - Mississippi, Missouri, and North Carolina - give the choice of gas or lethal injection. Most use either chemical injection or electrocution.

The gas chamber at San Quentin prison, instituted in 1938 as a more humane way of killing than hanging, was used in the Harris execution for the first time since 1967. Witnesses described the execution as slow and disgusting.

California lawmakers have wrestled with the issue of the gas chamber before. In 1988, McClintock tried to get the state to switch from cyanide to syringe. The effort didn't get far. Ironically, the measure was opposed at the time by the ACLU, which argued that no execution is humane, while some death-penalty supporters worried that raising questions about the gas chamber would fuel new legal challenges, which it eventually did.

Death-penalty opponents still believe any killing is immoral, but some argue that, if you have to do it, there are better ways than with gas.

"I suspect the California Legislature is going to move on this pretty quickly," says John Poulos, a professor of constitutional law at the University of California (Davis).

The ACLU hopes to continue to press its class-action suit, filed on behalf of all death-row inmates in California, seeking to abolish the gas chamber.

A federal appeals court turned down a similar constitutional challenge in a 1983 case in Mississippi.

The ACLU may have new ammunition pursuing its goal: On orders of the federal appeals judge presiding over the suit here, Harris's death was videotaped.

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