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Mississippi assembly opts for firing squads

A bill to hand executions to firing squads has been passed in Mississippi's state assembly. It wants the method used to thwart legal obstacles to lethal injections. Only two other US states have firing squads as options.

USA Todesstrafe Hinrichtung durch Erschießung in Utah (picture-alliance/dpa/T. Nelsen)

Firing squad chamber in Utah State Prison in 2010

Mississippi lawmakers forwarded their executions amendment bill to their state's Senate on Wednesday, setting up three optional methods for 47 death row inmates, some of whom have waited decades.

The move follows last month's condemnation by the UN human rights commission of three firing squad killings in Bahrain, home of the US Navy's 5th Fleet, and outrage over executions in Indonesia and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

Doubts over lethal drugs

State executions came to a halt in Mississippi in 2012 amid nationwide legal challenges to lethal injection on the grounds that it is a cruel and unusual punishment violating the US Constitution.

Mississippi's Bill 638 submitted by Republican Robert Foster and backed by the chamber's judiciary committee chairman Andy Gibson, also a Republican, stipulates a legal sequence if methods are sequentially judged unconstitutional.

Legal defeats for lethal injection would be followed by the use of nitrogen hypoxia, then a firing squad, and finally electrocution.

Lawyers vow challenges

A lawyer who is suing Mississippi over lethal injection drugs, Jim Craig, told The Associated Press that each of these methods would be challenged in court.

Each method raised a "whole new series of issues," said Craig, adding that Mississippi's Department of Corrections would have difficulty establishing procedures on firing squads to avoid torture allegations.

Bill 'gives us options'

Judiciary committee chairman Gibson said if Mississippi wanted to "have the death penalty, this bill gives us options." It was the chamber's response to lawsuits filed by "liberal, left-wing radicals," he said.

A spokesman for Mississippi's Republican governor Phil Bryant said he "generally favors the efficient administration of the death penalty."

Symbolbild Todesstrafe Giftspritze (BilderBox)

Execution by lethal injection is highly contested in the USA

The newspaper Clarion Ledger in Mississippi's capital of Jackson said Gibson was also a Baptist minister who believed the death penalty was "necessary for those who commit atrocious crimes."

It also quoted a Democratic representative in the state assembly, John Hines, as saying many of those sentenced to death had later been found to have been innocent.

Another Democrat, Willie Perkins, an attorney opposed to the death penalty, asked Gibson about the "time of suffering" using the various methods.

Gibson replied that he did not know.

31 US states 

According to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 31 US states plus the US government and the military still have the death penalty with lethal injection as the primary method of execution.

Infografik Todesstrafe USA ENG

Firing squads were only kept as options in Oklahoma and Utah. Eight states had electrocution as an option. Five had the gas chamber as an option. Three still retained hanging as a method, the center said.

The "Clarion-Ledger" said Mississippi largely executed death row prisoners by hanging until October 1940, when it resorted to the electric chair.

Between 1940 and 1952, the "old oak electric chair was moved from county to county," resulting in 75 executions, it said. Mississippi switched in 1954 to using the gas chamber, killing 35 death row inmates until June 1989.

Two weeks ago, a federal judge ruled that the intended use of the sedative midazolam on three convicts by another state, Ohio, was unconstitutional.

Many US states face drug shortages because pharmaceutical firms have banned use of their sedatives in executions.

Ohio has said it has a sufficient mix of three drugs intended for its latest method to carry out four executions.

US execution rate slows

Last year, 20 people were executed in the USA, down from 98 executions in 1999. The number of people handed death sentences last year was 30.

AP lists the "most active death penalty states" as Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

Four executions took place last month, in Texas, Missouri and Virginia.

ipj/rc (AP, dpa, Reuters)

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