Opinion: Execution drugs unavailable, states eye electric chairs, firing squads

Tennessee's execution chamber in 1999; the state may bring back the electric chair if it runs out of drugs for lethal injections.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)
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So what do you do when you’re a death penalty state and the rest of the civilized world refuses to sell you the drugs for your lethal injections? Turn back the clock, apparently.

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday signed a law that would allow prison officials to strap the condemned into an electric chair should drugs become unavailable for lethal injections. In Wyoming, there’s talk of bringing back the firing squad (the state already allows for poison gas as a backup, but apparently it doesn’t have a gas chamber). What’s next, mass public hangings? Drawing-and-quartering, with heads left on pikes at the city gates?

That states are looking to previously rejected execution methods indicates just what a problem this has become. Most of the industrialized world — the United States’ peer nations — did away with this barbaric practice long ago. European-based pharmaceutical companies refuse to export drugs to prisons for use in executions. The American Medical Assn., the American Board of Anesthesiologists and the American Nurses Assn. proscribe members from conducting executions, and activist groups are pressuring the American Pharmacists Assn. to adopt a similar ethics policy. Those policies’ influence, though, is limited: State-level laws shield most doctors from sanctions.


Still, such steps help build the wall of opposition. For health professionals, conducting executions conflicts with the basic premise of their professions: to help others, and to sustain life. Killing even a remorseless murderer helps no one, and only sustains a culture of violence and revenge.

If the death penalty worked as a deterrent, we wouldn’t have one of the highest murder rates in the industrialized world. The punishment does not match the crime, but reflects the society.

So here’s a suggestion for Tennessee, Wyoming, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, California and all the other states finding it more and more difficult to figure out a way to kill their own citizens: End the death penalty altogether.