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 firstname.lastname@example.org.