Amid controversy over execution drugs, Mississippi eyes firing squad

With the state facing legal challenges to its lethal injection cocktail, which critics say would violate the Eighth Amendment, Mississippi legislators have moved to put three alternative execution methods on the books.

Sue Ogrocki/AP/File
A gurney sits in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla., where a botched execution has fueled debate over the efficacy of currently available lethal injection drugs. Amid such controversy, Mississippi lawmakers are advancing a proposal to add firing squad, electrocution, and gas chamber as execution methods in case a court blocks the use of lethal injection drugs.

Concerned by recent court challenges and practical constraints that make execution by lethal injection increasingly precarious, Mississippi is taking preemptive action.

The state legislature introduced House Bill 638, which proposes adding firing squad, electrocution, and gas chamber to the list of approved execution methods in Mississippi. Lethal injection is currently the state’s only execution method. Despite opposition, the bill passed the House on Wednesday and will be assigned to a Senate committee for further deliberation.

What appears to concern Mississippi legislators, above all, is the possibility that the judicial process could be slowed – or even halted – by several recently filed lawsuits. These lawsuits contend that use of the state’s current lethal injection cocktail would violate the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Having alternative execution methods on the books might safeguard Mississippi’s ability to carry out the death penalty – though some caution that these methods come with their own complications.

“Every single one, in essence, just injects a whole new series of issues in the existing case," Jim Craig, an attorney with the New Orleans-based Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center who is suing Mississippi over lethal injection drugs, told the Associated Press.

Lethal injection has long been considered the most humane way to end a life – former President Ronald Reagan famously compared it to putting a horse to sleep. In recent years, however, that picture has begun to shift, as a string of botched executions have called into question the humanity, and even the constitutionality, of the method.

In 2011, the European Union banned drugmakers from selling drugs to US states for use in lethal injections, and US-based companies like Pfizer have adopted a similar approach. Substitute drugs, most notably midazolam, have been less effective, sometimes causing death row inmates minutes of agony when they should have been sedated.

In response to US Supreme Court cases where some justices have described states’ existing lethal injection protocols as cruel and unusual, certain states – including Georgia and Ohio – have declared temporary moratoriums on the death penalty. In Washington state, a bipartisan group of lawmakers moved to repeal the death penalty entirely, citing pragmatic and ethical concerns.

But that approach has left lawmakers in Mississippi concerned that justice will not be carried out.

"I have a constituent whose daughter was raped and killed by a serial killer over 25 years ago and that person's still waiting for the death penalty. The family is still waiting for justice," said state Rep. Andy Gipson, a Republican who chairs the House Judiciary B Committee, AP reported.

With its new bill, Mississippi instead looks set to follow in the footsteps of Utah, which brought back the firing squad in 2015. That return to traditional methods is likely to become more common, Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno previously suggested to The Christian Science Monitor.

“There’s a concession that there’s a problem with lethal injection so states are going back to methods that seemed barbaric at one point but, relative to lethal injection, maybe don’t look as bad anymore,” Professor Denno, whose work on the constitutionality of execution methods has been cited numerous times by Supreme Court justices, told the Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson.

But these alternative methods may bring complications of their own, observers warn. Mr. Craig of the MacArthur Justice Center notes that the state would have to implement procedures to reduce the risk of torture, which he doubts the Department of Corrections has prepared to do. Representative Gipson was unable to answer several questions about "the time of suffering" an inmate would experience if executed under one of these methods when questioned by fellow state Rep. Willie Perkins, a Democrat, AP reported.

On balance, however, studies suggest that execution by firing squad, at least, is probably better than lethal injection, Denno indicated.

"People say firing squad is so brutal, but, at least as far as we know, it’s probably the most humane, it kills people the quickest, and it’s one we have expertise for,” she told the Monitor in 2015.

If the bill makes it through the Senate, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant would review it before deciding whether to sign it, spokesman Clay Chandler said, according to AP. The governor "generally favors the efficient administration of the death penalty in Mississippi,” he noted.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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