While all states that use the death penalty permit lethal injection, some also allow for other means — such as nitrogen gas, electrocution or firing squad — if lethal injection is unavailable. Some also give those sentenced to death a choice.
The Justice Department under President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr has revived and reinvigorated use of the federal death penalty, carrying out the first federal execution in 17 years and executing more federal inmates in the past four months than the total number over the previous three decades. Last week, the Justice Department executed 49-year-old Orlando Hall, who was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering 16-year-old Lisa Rene in Arkansas in 1994.
The rule change is likely to draw criticism from civil liberties and anti-death penalty advocates who view firing squads and other methods as inhumane, though its practical impact remains to be seen.
Five federal inmates are scheduled to be executed in the coming weeks before Joe Biden is sworn in as president, though a Justice Department official said four of those — Lisa Montgomery, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois and Cory Johnson — will be killed by lethal injection. The official declined to address the fifth case, of Dustin John Higgs, citing pending litigation.
The official said the rule change, first proposed in August, was meant so that federal executions would be carried out in line with state law, adding “the federal government will never execute an inmate by firing squad or electrocution unless the relevant state has itself authorized that method of execution.”
Biden opposes the death penalty, and his campaign has said he will work to pass legislation to eliminate capital punishment at the federal level. Under former president Barack Obama, there was a moratorium on executions while the Justice Department reviewed its protocols, even as it continued to seek and win death sentences in some trials. Barr last year announced plans to resume federal executions for the first time since 2003, which Vice President-elect Kamala Harris decried at the time, calling for a nationwide halt to the death penalty.
Lethal injection remains the primary method of execution in the United States, although only a handful of states still regularly carry out death sentences.
In recent years, states have struggled to obtain the drugs needed for lethal injections amid opposition from pharmaceutical companies, prompting officials to adopt or expand other methods for carrying out these sentences.
In Utah, officials made firing squads their backup method of execution, while Tennessee expanded its use of the electric chair to carry out death sentences. Oklahoma was the first state to add nitrogen gas as a method of execution, followed by Mississippi and Alabama, though none have used it yet.
States have also turned to new drug combinations for executions, with Nebraska in 2018 becoming the first state to use the opioid fentanyl in a lethal injection. In other states that still have the death penalty, courts or governors have blocked executions, while authorities in others say they have no lethal injection drugs and do not plan to seek any.