A new rule could allow gas, firing squads at U.S. executions

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Department of Justice is quietly amending its enforcement protocols and no longer requiring federal death sentences to be executed by lethal injection and clarifying the way to use other methods, such as squads and poison gases.

The amended rule, which was published in the Federal Register on Friday, allows the U.S. government to carry out executions by lethal injection, or “in any other manner prescribed by the laws of the state where the sentence was imposed.” Many states allow other methods of execution, including electric shock, inhalation of nitrogen gas, or death by shooting a squad.

It is not yet clear whether the Department of Justice intends to use methods other than lethal injection for executions in the future. The rule, which will take effect on Dec. 24, has scheduled five executions by the Justice Department during the lame-duck period, including three days before elected president Joe Biden takes office.

A Justice Department official said the change was made in light of the fact that the federal death penalty law provides for executions “under the law of the state where the sentence was imposed,” and some of these states use methods other than lethal injection.

The official said two executions scheduled for December were carried out by lethal injection, but did not provide information on three honors planned for January. The official spoke anonymously to the Associated Press to discuss internal department protocols.

The change is likely to provoke intense criticism from Democrats and Death Defenders as the Trump administration tries to push through a number of rule changes before Trump leaves office. A Biden spokesman told the AP earlier this month that the elected president “opposes the death penalty now and in the future” and is working to end its use. But he did not say whether the executions would pause immediately after Biden took office.

Attorney General William Barr has restarted federal executions this year after a 17-year hiatus. This year, the Justice Department has killed more people than in the previous half century, despite the use of both Democrats and Republicans for public support.

States that use the death penalty allow lethal injection – and this is the primary method in all states where other methods are allowed – are evidenced by data compiled by the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. As it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain lethal injectable drugs, some states have begun to look for alternative ways to enforce death sentences. Alabama joined Oklahoma and Mississippi in 2018, approving the use of nitrogen gas to execute prisoners, allowing the state to suffocate convicted prisoners with gas in some cases.

In some states, inmates may choose how to execute them. In Florida, for example, an inmate can explicitly request to die from an electric shock, and in Washington, inmates can be asked to die by hanging. In Utah, prisoners convicted before May 2004 may choose to be killed by a shooting team. State laws there also allow the use of a shooting team if lethal injectable drugs are not available.

In 2014, after the interruption of the change of state in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama instructed the Department of Justice to conduct a comprehensive review of the death penalty and issues related to lethal injecting drugs.

Barr said in July 2019 that the review was completed, allowing executions to continue, and approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaced the combination of three drugs previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. A single drug protocol is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri, and Texas.

Before the Trump administration executed this year, the federal government has sentenced only three detainees to death since 1988. Although there has been no federal execution since 2003, until July, the Department of Justice continued to approve the indictment of the death penalty, and federal state courts continued to sentence the defendants to death.

Trump often spoke of the death penalty and his belief that executions serve as an effective deterrent and appropriate punishment for certain crimes, including mass shootings and the murder of police officers.