In 1982, Texas became the first US state to execute a prisoner via lethal injection, a method proposed in 1977 in Oklahoma. Believed to be cheaper and more humane than previous methods – the electric chair and gas chamber – by the end of the century it became an option for all death row inmates in US states where execution was legal, and the only method available in some of them.
How humane it actually is has come into question in the following years, with several high-profile cases of harrowing botched executions – sometimes performed by unqualified staff – and questions of whether the cocktail of drugs used is as painless as first thought, even when administered correctly. Prisoners have had to endure deaths where assistants were unable to find veins for hours, or telling their executioners that it's "not working" in the middle of their own execution. Others have fared worse. One doctor told a court that for many executioners it's “the first time probably in their life they have picked up a syringe" and that he had personally reduced the amount of anesthetic given to inmates when the supplier began packaging it in smaller bottles, adding that there was no execution procedure that had been written down.
Pharmaceutical companies have become reluctant to sell drugs needed for lethal injection to states, both on moral grounds – Pfizer has refused to supply the drugs since 2016 – and out of fear of being targeted by campaign groups opposing the death penalty. Some states have opted not to carry out executions without the drugs, while others such as South Carolina have forced inmates to choose between death by electric chair, or execution using undisclosed drugs of unknown origin.
"The South Carolina Department of Corrections refuses to release any information about how it intends to carry out [Richard Moore's] execution – from the type and source of lethal injection drugs to the status and testing of the electric chair – creating the risk of a torturous execution with no oversight," Moore's attorneys Lindsey Vann, Hannah Freedman and John Blume said in a statement late last year.
Now the state has signed a bill that ensures that "a person sentenced to death shall suffer the penalty by electrocution or firing squad" if lethal injection is unavailable at the time of their planned execution. Execution by firing squads – also allowed in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah – has only taken place in 12 other countries over the last decade.
The method – as it is used in Utah, the last state to use this method in 2010 – involves getting the condemned to sit on a chair in front of wood panels. To their sides are placed sandbags, to stop bullets from ricocheting, and a target over their heart. From behind a holed wall, five volunteer officers fire at the prisoner's heart. One of the guns will contain a blank, so that nobody knows if they fired one of the shots that killed them. If done right, death can take place in minutes – but if they were to miss the heart it can take a lot longer. In 1879, one inmate in Utah took 27 minutes to die after this happened.
The electric chair, meanwhile – itself developed as a more humane alternative to hanging – has been ruled a "cruel and unusual punishment" in Nebraska in 2008, the last state to use the punishment as its only available option. Inmates are placed on a wooden chair, and electrodes attached to their legs and head, before a current is passed through them which will stop their heart. The method is painful, and accounts of botched executions are numerous, including several cases where flesh has been burned, death has taken several rounds of electrocution, and inmates' hair has set on fire.
Gas chambers, which cause death by asphyxiation, have also seen their fair share of botched executions. In 1983, Jimmy Lee Gray ended his life banging his head against a metal pole in the chamber, in an execution that was later revealed to be carried out by an executioner who was drunk. When it goes correctly, it will still cause a lot of pain to the condemned.
With no one willing to supply enough drugs for the lethal injection of the 2,500+ inmates on death row, states are looking at other methods, including strapping a mask onto the inmates and forcing them to inhale nitrogen gas. So far the only state that has come up with a procedure for this type of death, Oklahoma, is having the same supply issues as with lethal injections.
With lethal injection supplies running out – itself not pain-free – inmates in increasing numbers of states will be left to choose between these outdated and unusual methods of death, none of which can be described as a good way to go.