by Clarence Page

Bring Back Firing Squads? We Do Worse

Bungled executions by lethal injection are beginning to make firing squads look good. Seriously.

I did not always feel this way. I'm an opponent of the death penalty.

But with lethal-injection drugs in short supply and new questions being raised about their effectiveness, a seemingly humane form of execution is looking a lot less palatable than such old-fashioned methods as the rope or a team of sharpshooters.

President Barack Obama found a particularly ghastly example in Oklahoma last week to be "deeply disturbing" enough for him to order a nationwide review by Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. of how the death penalty is applied.

The condemned man could hardly be a less sympathetic figure. Clayton Lockett, was convicted of first-degree murder and 18 other counts for shooting a 19-year-old woman in a crime spree and watching as accomplices buried her alive.

However, his lethal injection with an experimental concoction of drugs proved to be disturbingly less lethal than the state had hoped it would be. Witnesses said it took 43 minutes for Lockett to die, during which he thrashed on the gurney and, according to Oklahoma's corrections director Robert Patton, the vein line meant to administer lethal drugs into Lockett's body had "exploded." Patton ended the execution before Lockett died from an apparent heart attack.

A similar controversy in Ohio followed the January execution of Dennis McGuire, who was convicted of raping and murdering a 22-year-old pregnant woman. Despite eyewitness accounts of his gasping for air for roughly 10 minutes after receiving the drug, a state investigation concluded that there was no evidence that McGuire "experienced any pain, distress or anxiety."

Ironically, lethal injection, widely accepted as a way to make the death penalty more humane and politically palatable, has become a source of growing problems and suspicions. The federal government and the 32 states that have the death penalty use injection as their primary method of execution, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

But the most reliable execution drugs fell into short supply after the American Board of Anesthesiologists decided in 2010 to revoke the certification of any member who participated in a lethal injection. The American Medical Association also has long held that participating in executions violates a doctor's Hippocratic Oath.

As the European Union and other overseas sources imposed bans, states were left scrambling to find new ways to carry out death sentences without violating the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Some prison officials in different states have become desperate enough to run cash-only transactions with unregulated compounding pharmacies for untested drug cocktails, according to news reports.

"Given these recurring problems with lethal injections," David Waisel, an associate professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, told the Washington Post, "if I had to be executed, I would choose a firing squad."

He's not alone. Lawmakers in several states have debated bringing back the electric chair, the gas chamber and hanging, among other old-school alternatives -- including measures in Missouri and Wyoming to bring back the firing squad as an option.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, has said he thinks such moves could backfire, stirring a backlash by a shocked and horrified public against the death penalty. He can only hope. So do I.

Since the end of the Civil War, there have been three civilian firing squad executions in the U.S., all in Utah. One was Gary Gilmore who chose a firing squad for his execution, which ended a national moratorium imposed by the Supreme Court. Compared to the uncertainty of today's lethal injections, Gilmore's choice makes more sense than ever.

As we can see, his death didn't end executions. But I since have been relieved to see capital punishment is losing its appeal. The numbers of executions has fallen by more than half since its modern peak in 2000, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A half-dozen more states have abolished capital punishment over the last seven years as others have imposed moratoriums or debated legislation to repeal it.

The firing squad sounds more shocking than other options. But on a subject this serious, we need to be shocked.

Available at The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap



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"Bring Back Firing Squads? We Do Worse "