by Sophie Trist
Even as support for capital punishment reaches its lowest point in forty years, some states are so eager to kill their own citizens that they are resorting to inhumane, primitive methods to carry out the death penalty. Foremost among them are South Carolina and Arizona. Frustrated by their inability to acquire the drugs for lethal injection, both states are trying to bring back the electric chair, the gas chamber, and even the firing squad, all of which enjoy only marginal support from the American people. The most recent poll concerning execution methods, conducted in 2014, indicates that 20% of Americans support using the gas chamber to kill if lethal injection drugs are not available, 18% support electrocution, and only 12% view the firing squad as a viable alternative. Given that general support for the death penalty has continued to decline since 2014, support for these primitive, barbaric execution methods is likely even lower.
South Carolina conducted its last execution in May of 2011, and its supply of lethal drugs expired in 2013. On May 17, 2021, Republican governor Henry McMaster signed a bill forcing inmates to choose between the electric chair and a firing squad if lethal injection is not available. Several other Republicans opposed the law, pointing out that when passing the Fetal Heartbeat Protection from Abortion Act several months ago, the legislature espoused the belief that all life is sacred.
Attorneys for three death row inmates faced with this unthinkable choice are suing South Carolina over the new law, but the state’s supreme court has already set a June 18 execution date for one of them, Brad Sigman. Death Penalty Action and the state chapter of Democrats for Life of America organized protests against the inhumane law in Greenville and Columbia. One of the speakers was Rev. Sharon Rischer, whose mother and cousins were murdered during the Mother Emanuel massacre in 2015. She told the gathered crowd, “I don’t want people to die. I believe because of my faith that God sees all of us as people that can be redeemed.” Another speaker at a protest in Columbia was Randy Gardener, a Utah native whose brother Ronnie was the last American executed by firing squad in 2010. Gardener told protesters that the last decade has been filled with nightmares about his brother’s gruesome death.
Horrifying developments are also afoot in Arizona, which has not executed anyone since 2014, when it botched the killing of Joseph Wood so gruesomely that he was injected with lethal drugs fifteen times and took two hours to die. Documents uncovered by The Guardian reveal that Arizona has spent $2,000 on refurbishing its gas chamber, which was constructed in 1949 and hasn’t been used in twenty-two years. The state’s Department of Corrections spent $1,530 on a brick of potassium cyanide and an additional $500 on sodium hydroxide pellets and sulfuric acid. Together, these three ingredients form cyanide gas, which the Nazis used under the trade name Zyklon B to murder millions of Jewish men, women, and children in Auschwitz and other death camps. Let that sink in for a moment. In its zeal for killing, Arizona is willing to resort to a gas favored by the Nazis which causes a slow, agonizing death.
The last person to be executed in Arizona’s gas chamber was a German national named Walter LaGrand. The Tucson Citizen published a harrowing eyewitness account of the execution which pulls no punches. Walter LaGrand took an unconscionable eighteen minutes to die, and his last moments appeared agonizing as he coughed, choked, and struggled for life. The choice between the needle, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and the firing squad is really no choice at all.
There is no “humane” way for a government to kill an incarcerated person, but the fact that states like South Carolina and Arizona are bringing back primitive, brutal execution methods shows a horrific disregard for human dignity. Forcing incarcerated people to choose between these grisly options only adds to their unjust and unnecessary torture as they await execution. It is my hope that these horrendous laws will spur the abolition movement to even greater action and inspire more Americans to speak out against the inhumanity of capital punishment.