Missouri Contemplates Return of Gas Chamber to Execute Inmates

Missouri Contemplates Return of Gas Chamber to Execute Inmates

Missouri State Penitentiary Gas ChamberFacing a shortage of the lethal drugs necessary to execute death row inmates, the state of Missouri is contemplating a return to using the gas chamber as a means for executing condemned convicts. Attorney General Chris Koster (D) is trying to expedite the execution of two inmates, Joseph Paul Franklin and Allen Nicklasson, before the state’ supply of propofol expires. The state has just three lethal doses of propofol available but the first will expire October of this year and the last will expire in 2015. The state switched to propofol as their lethal drug of choice after supplies of other drugs became scarce. Missouri is the only state that calls for administering a single drug rather than injecting a “lethal cocktail” that mixes multiple drugs.

However, Missouri’s executions have been placed on hold until the state supreme court determines whether the new execution protocol violates the US Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The new protocol that is pending the court ruling, calls for using 15 times the normal surgical dose for propofol, and it has been challenged by 21 death row inmates on the grounds that if administered, it would likely cause an excruciating amount of pain before killing the inmate.

The shortage of lethal injection chemicals has resulted because many pharmaceutical companies in the United States, Europe and Asia have refused to sell certain drugs to US correctional facilities on ethical grounds. In addition, the European Commission has imposed strict restrictions preventing the importation of most potentially lethal anaesthetics, including pentobarbital and sodium thiopental to the United States.  These restrictions have created a shortage of ingredients for the lethal cocktails used by states to execute death row convicts.

The shortage of ingredients has prompted Attorney General Koster to plead with judges to be allowed to execute death row inmates before the state’s supply of propofol expires and cannot be used. It has also prompted him to discuss restoring the only other form of execution constitutionally permitted by the state of Missouri, the gas chamber.

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The gas chamber has not been in use in Missouri since 1965. Thirty-eight inmates were executed in gas chambers between 1938 and 1965. Hanging was used prior to 1938. From 1965 to 1989, the state carried out no executions, but since 1989, 68 men have been executed by lethal injection in the state of Missouri.  Since the state resumed executions in 1989, only Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma and Florida have executed more inmates than Missouri.

Despite being one of the leading five states for executing inmates, Missouri also remains among the top ten states for homicide rate, ranking 9th with a per capita murder rate of 6.1 per 100,000 residents in 2011. Missouri has a higher murder rate than any of the eight states that border it. The bordering state with the lowest murder rate is Iowa, Missouri’s only neighbor that does not have the death penalty, with a rate of 1.5 per 100,000.

The last time the gas chamber was used in the United States was when Walter Lagrand was gassed to death in Arizona on March 3, 1999. It took him eighteen minutes to die. Missouri may be the first of many states to experience a shortage of execution supplies.  Unable to mix a lethal cocktail, the state has resorted to mega-dosages of the drug that killed Michael Jackson, only to have their plans thwarted by delays from the state’s Supreme Court.  As time runs out to administer the dwindling supply of propofol, the Attorney General is contemplating reinstating the gas chamber. However, without an operating gas chamber in the state, rebuilding the apparatus of a functioning gas chamber could be an expensive proposition, and it could spur more court challenges regarding the state’s choice of execution methods.

Chris Koster is appealing to have the state speed up the execution of some of its prisoners before Missouri ‘s supply of death syrup expires. Barring that Koster is asking to resume the possible use of the gas chamber for executions.  Missouri Governors and Attorney Generals, both Democrats and Republicans, have been eager to carry out executions for the past two and a half decades. Now however, the death penalty in Missouri is desperate to find a way to continue the executions. With their efforts to circumvent court-impose delays, the state is willing to turn to an archaic and barbaric method of execution, by considering a return to the gas chamber. If they are unable to find a court-sanctioned method of execution, the death penalty itself may soon be gasping for air in the state of Missouri.


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