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The recent history of states contemplating firing squads and other execution methods

The firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah, is seen in June 2010. (Trent Nelson/AP)

It’s a difficult time for states that want to keep executing inmates. Drug shortages are making it increasingly tough to carry out lethal injections, causing states to scramble to find other drugs and drug combinations that can be used for executions.

While lethal injection is still the main method of execution in this country, some states have responded to the drug shortages by discussing other methods that they could use. Reid Wilson over at GovBeat tells us about the Wyoming lawmakers who are contemplating using firing squads to carry out executions. Here’s a rundown of what alternative methods have been considered. [UPDATE: Now with information on the changes in Tennessee.] 


First, some basic information about executions and methods 

Lethal injection is the primary method of execution in the country, although other methods are available in certain states. Eight states also allow electrocution, three states allow the gas chamber and three other states allow hanging. Two states allow the firing squad, though only technically. (Head here for more on that and a guide to which states allow what.)

Lethal injections in the United States were largely carried out using a three-drug formula until 2010. Since then, drug shortages — in large part spurred by opposition to capital punishment in Europe — caused states to struggle to figure out how to carry out these lethal injections. Here’s more about the drug shortages.

Virginia and the electric chair

The electric chair is actually still used in Virginia. Inmates are allowed to choose between lethal injection and the electric chair, although lethal injection is the default method. An inmate was executed using the electric chair last year and another was killed this way in 2010.

But with the drug shortage looming, Virginia lawmakers planned to vote on whether to make the electric chair the default method of execution when lethal injection drugs were not available. The state’s House of Delegates passed a bill, but the law was eventually shelved for the year in the state Senate.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Virginia has executed 110 inmates, the third-highest total in the country during that time. (Texas leads the list by a massive margin, with 515 executions; Oklahoma recently moved ahead of Virginia and took took the No. 2 spot after it executed its 111th inmate.)

Missouri and the gas chamber

The gas chamber is still technically available in Missouri, although it isn’t actually utilized. Missouri’s statute doesn’t make it clear if the inmate or the state’s Department of Corrections gets to pick the method of execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, but the state has typically opted for lethal injection.

Missouri has had its issues with lethal injection drugs, with an issue last year leading the state to discuss gas chambers once again. When the Missouri Supreme Court questioned the use of the drug propofol in executions, Chris Koster, the state’s attorney general, said in a statement that “alternative methods of execution” could be needed. A spokeswoman for his office told ABC News that if lethal injection wasn’t an option, the gas chamber remained the alternative.

This seems to have been averted for now, as the state figured out another way to keep carrying out lethal injections. In October, the state nearly carried out an execution using only propofol for the injection, but the execution was halted by Gov. Jay Nixon (D) after European officials threatened to stop exporting the widely-used anesthetic to the country. A short time later, the Missouri Department of Corrections shifted its execution protocol and switched to just using the drug pentobarbital, saying that the change was made because of concerns about using propofol. The state has carried out six executions since the change.

Missouri has executed 74 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The state has executed four people so far this year, and tried very hard to execute a fifth person this week, but after a judicial back-and-forth, that execution was eventually stayed by the Supreme Court.

In any event, it’s not like Missouri could easily shift to just using the gas chamber. The state closed its gas chamber since the last time it carried out such an execution (in 1968), so any facilities for a gas execution would need to be built, a state official told ABC.

Louisiana and the electric chair

In Louisiana, lethal injection is the only method of execution. Facing the drug shortages, a state representative filed a bill that would have added the electric chair as an option. (The state didn’t actually have a working electric chair, with the chair previously used by the state housed in a museum, so a new one would have needed to be built.) That option was removed from the bill, which instead let companies supplying execution drugs to the Louisiana Department of Corrections keep their identities hidden.

Louisiana has executed 28 people since 1976. The last time the state killed someone was 2010.

Utah and firing squads 

Utah is one of two states that does still allow use of the firing squad (Oklahoma is the other). The state banned the practice in 2004, but said it would make an exception for death-row inmates who picked that method of execution before it was outlawed. (Oklahoma, by comparison, allows it if other methods are deemed unconstitutional.) Utah was also the last state to execute someone with a firing squad, killing Ronnie Lee Gardner this way in 2010.

A decade later, a Utah lawmaker wants to bring back the option for all criminals. In the wake of the botched execution in Oklahoma last month, state Rep. Paul Ray (R) said he thinks firing squads would be an effective way to execute inmates. He called it “probably the most humane way to kill somebody.” Ray said he will introduce a proposal to revive firing squads next January.

Utah has executed seven people since 1976, none since Gardner in 2010.

Wyoming and firing squads

Wyoming is another state that allows for the use of a gas chamber, but only if lethal injection is found to be constitutional, says the Death Penalty Information Center.

This week’s news about Wyoming lawmakers considering firing squads isn’t even the first time this year that the state contemplated such a move. In January, Bruce Burns (R), a state senator, submitted a bill that would have allowed for the use of firing squads if lethal injection was deemed unavailable.

Burns said that even though Wyoming allowed the use of the gas chamber, it didn’t actually have a working one available, so it would be cheaper to use a firing squad than to build a new gas chamber.

In any event, the issue isn’t really one Wyoming has to deal with all that often. The state currently has one person on death row, tied with New Hampshire (which almost repealed the death penalty this year) for the lowest total in the country. Wyoming has executed just one person since 1976: Mark Hopkinson, who was sentenced to death for paying someone to murder someone while he was in prison. He proclaimed his innocence while strapped to the gurney for the lethal injection.

Tennessee and the electric chair

On Thursday, Tennessee changed its laws so that the electric chair becomes the default method of execution if lethal injection is not available (either because of a drug shortage or because of court challenges). Since 2000, the electric chair has been an option for inmates who committed their crimes before Jan. 1, 1999. The new law removes choice from the equation, making it the first state since the drug shortages to alter its laws in such a manner. Head here for more.


• Everything you need to know about the death penalty in the United States.

What it was like watching the botched Oklahoma execution.

• Creator of lethal injection protocol: “I don’t see anything that is more humane.”

See the evolution of the death penalty across the country.

With capital punishment dominating headlines, PostTV looks at the latest statistics on the death penalty in the United States, and in the 21 other countries that executed inmates in 2013. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)


Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and stories from around the country.



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