SID SALTER: Chemical shortages have some states rethinking execution



Are we headed back to firing squads in Wyoming or Missouri? Will Virginia bring back the electric chair?

The gallows still operate in three states – Delaware, New Hampshire and Washington. Will more follow?

A dwindling supply of the chemicals necessary to formulate the “cocktail” combination of drugs used in the lethal injection process to execute condemned inmates – coupled with legal challenges to both the chemicals used and the various combinations of them as used in executions – has led a number of U.S. states that use the death penalty to reconsider bringing back gas chambers, electrocutions or firing squads.

Beginning in our territorial days, Mississippi utilized the gallows or hanging as the preferred method of execution. That method was prevalent until the Mississippi Legislature authorized the use of the portable electric chair. The chair was trucked county to county for use in executions – held with much public spectacle on courthouse squares – in 1940.

The electric chair was utilized until 1955, when Gov. Hugh White called a special legislative session to replace the portable chair with a fixed gas chamber on the grounds of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

The political battle in 1955, reported former Parchman warden and later criminal justice professor and author Donald Cabana in 2004, was between Sunflower County residents who wanted executions to be carried out in the county where the crime was committed and state leaders who wanted executions centralized at Parchman.

Murderer Gerald A. Gallego was the first Mississippi inmate to die in the gas chamber on March 3, 1955, in what Cabana’s research recorded as a “botched” execution. Cabana wrote: “Whether due to nervous human error, mechanical failure or a combination of the two, the execution was botched. Gallego coughed, choked, and wheezed on a less than lethal cloud of cyanide poisoning. Finally, after some forty-five minutes while officials feverishly worked to correct the problem, the repairs were completed and Gallego quickly died.”

But the state eventually mastered the use of cyanide gas and used the gas chamber from 1955 until 1989. In the 1980s, Mississippi lawmakers changed state law to adopt lethal injection as the state’s method of execution.

I covered two executions in the gas chamber in the 1980s. I covered two executions by lethal injection after executions resumed under that process in 2002. From those experiences, I learned that it is one thing to discuss the death penalty in the abstract. It is quite another thing to witness the actual implementation of it.

Death in the gas chamber is a horrible death. Few who have ever witnessed the process advocate for a return to it. If execution is truly an act of retribution by the state against a criminal, mission accomplished.

By contrast, lethal injection likely carries with it all the psychological punishments for the condemned that does any other method, but as a physical process it is a rather anti-climactic process – at least from the antiseptic vantage point of an observer.

But unless the chemical shortage and the related legal challenges are satisfied, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Mississippi will be forced to revisit whatever small measure of “progress” the state has made in bringing some procedural humanity to an inherently inhumane process.

As the rest of us go about our business, 50 inmates on Mississippi’s death row face their dates with the executioner in whatever form it eventually comes.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. He is the chief spokesman for Mississippi State University. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or

  • barney fife

    If the state must execute, and cannot get the preferred chemicals, how about using some of that confiscated heroin they’re always showing off and merely overdose the criminal into oblivion?

  • FrereJocques

    We have become a nation of wimps. Why are we concerned about whether or not an executed person feels pain? Most likely, they didn’t care about how much pain they caused when they slaughtered their victim(s).

    We’ve got far too many “do-gooders” in this country who need to quit tending to other peoples’ business. Your sympathies very often are on the wrong side. We don’t look more civilized because of painless executions in the eyes of the world, we look like bleeding-heart weaklings, unable to mete out what is dealt.

    • Jon

      Because we’re not a bunch of savages, killing to satiate some sort of bloodlust. We’re carrying out sentences, dude, not reinstating Hammurabi’s law.

      • FrereJocques

        An interesting point of view. Putting Hammurabi aside, the policy of “an eye for an eye” goes clear back to the earliest chapters of the Bible. The Mosaic Law clearly included this. Apparently God, at least at some point, thought this was appropriate.

        I’m not advocating death by torture as a policy, but if you ask me whether or not I care if a person being executed feels any pain, my response would be that “Payback’s a B**ch, ain’t it?”.

    • Winston Smith

      I actually agree with your overall point. It sounds terribly savage, but we’re talking about terribly savage people. Only the most heinous of crimes merits the death penalty. And if you’re the type of person that commits these types of crime I’ve got zero sympathy for you, or how much you suffer before you’re put down. However, I don’t think we’re viewed globally as bleeding-heart weaklings, I think most other nations view us as dangerous bullies.

      On a side note, why do they swab the condemned persons arm with alcohol before a lethal injection?

      • FrereJocques

        ” However, I don’t think we’re viewed globally as bleeding-heart
        weaklings, I think most other nations view us as dangerous bullies.”

        And why is that? America is the most generous nation on the planet when it comes to aiding victims of disasters, both natural and man-made. Even though by our own standards we have more intrusive government than we’d like, it’s far better than the vast majority of other world governments. Why do so many people want to come here? The reason we may be viewed as “bullies” is because we have allowed ourselves to be defined this way in International forums. The trouble is, the people doing the “defining” are themselves likely to be even BIGGER bullies. Basheer Assad, the President of Syria, is the Poster Child of this situation. When HIS government executes someone, it’s usually by gunfire, at the person’s home, and in front of his family. In Iran, they executed a number of people solely because they were gay, who were guilty of nothing more than having the “wrong” sexual orientation. The rulers decided that merely being executed in public wasn’t sufficient punishment, so the men were first whipped.

        When it comes to being judged by others, “First remove the beam from thine own eye, so you can better see to remove the mote from thy brother’s eye.”

        As to why they swab a condemned person’s arm, it’s either simple force of habit, or maybe they’ve just never gotten the law changed to account for the fact that it’s a pointless procedure.

        • Winston Smith

          I’m personally fine with capital punishment, I like the idea of making the worst criminals pay with the one thing that’s most precious to them, on the flip side, basically all other modern free democracies have abolished capital punishment except us and Japan. But I think the reason we’re viewed as bullies is because we’re bullies, we’re generous, charitable bullies. We have the strongest military, bases everywhere in the world, an arsenal of nuclear weapons and a history of unprovoked big business sponsored warfare. I mean just look at the Banana Wars. As for Iran, we basically created that situation! We tried our hand at installing a puppet government ONLY because the Iranians nationalized the oil industry, and we ended up with a radical government that hates the US. We tried the same thing with Cuba with the bay of pigs, and in Venezuela as well. And I’m not saying Iran is great, or Syria is great, or the communist countries of Cuba and Venezuela are great either. But they all have legitimate reasons for not liking the US. We’re viewed as bullies because we’ve been in the dirty business of empire building for a long, long time. And we’re the best in the world at it. We’re viewed as bullies because out of all other nations on the planet we have the most power and authority.

          I don’t mean any of that as a slight against the US either, there’s really nowhere else I’d rather live and we have one of the highest standards of living in the history of human existence, we’re also the best at global humanitarian causes, and innovations in healthcare and technology. But we also do bad things out of greed, or fear, or indifference, or to consolidate power. It is what it is, and at the end of the day who cares what another country thinks about us?