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New US executions rule heralds return of gas chamber and Ol’ Sparky?

The outgoing Trump administration is paving the way for additional methods of executing prisoners.

Staff Writers
2 minute read
The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. Photo: AP
The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. Photo: AP

This year, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) has executed more people than during the previous half-century, reports the Associated Press.

And now the outgoing administration of President Donald Trump is paving the way for additional methods of executing death row prisoners.

The DoJ has changed its execution protocols in an amended rule published on Friday. It no longer requires federal death sentences to be carried out by lethal injection, so clearing the way for other methods such as firing squads and poison gas.

A number of states already allow other methods of execution, including electrocution, inhaling nitrogen gas or by firing squad.

The amended rule goes into effect on Dec 24 and comes as the DoJ has scheduled five executions for the presidential lame-duck period, including three just days before president-elect Joe Biden takes office.

The rule change is likely to spark intense criticism from anti-death penalty advocates.

A spokesman for Joe Biden told AP earlier this month that the president-elect “opposes the death penalty now and in the future” and would work to end its use, but he did not say whether executions would be paused immediately once Biden takes office.

All states that use the death penalty allow lethal injection and that is the primary method, but as lethal injection drugs become more difficult to obtain, many states have begun looking at alternatives.

In some states, inmates can choose how they will be put to death. For example, in Florida a condemned inmate can ask for electrocution, and in Washington state hanging is a choice. In Utah, prisoners sentenced before 2004 can choose to be shot by firing squad.

In 2014, following a botched lethal injection execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the DoJ to conduct a review of capital punishment methods.

Once the review was completed, Attorney-General William Barr allowed federal executions to resume, replacing the previous three-drug combination with one drug, pentobarbital.

Before the resumption, the federal government had executed just three prisoners since 1988 amid waning public and political support for capital punishment.