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Lawmaker proposes firing squad, nitrogen for executions

Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, filed a bill earlier this month to allow Alabama to execute condemned inmates by firing squad.

Now he’s thinking about adding another method: gassing inmates to death with nitrogen.

“The main thing is that we come up with some alternatives to get out of the bind we’re in,” Pittman said.

Earlier this month, Pittman introduced a bill that would allow condemned inmates to choose lethal injection, the electric chair or the firing squad. Lethal injection is now the state’s default method of killing condemned prisoners, though inmates are allowed the choice of the electric chair. State records show the state hasn’t used the firing squad since at least 1927, if ever.

Pittman’s firing-squad bill comes in the wake of a stay of execution for Thomas Arthur, a 74-year-old inmate who has been on death row since the 1980s for a murder-for-hire.

Arthur and several other inmates have fought the state’s lethal injection process in court for years, arguing that the initial drug used in the process doesn’t kill the pain of the final, heart-stopping dose of potassium chloride.

The U.S. Supreme Court threw those arguments for a loop last year, upholding an Oklahoma execution process that used drugs similar to Alabama’s. The ruling also required inmates, when they challenge lethal injection processes, to offer alternatives that are more humane — and available.

Since that ruling, inmates, through court filings, have offered several alternatives. Some have called for a return to pain-killing drugs the state once used — drugs state officials argue they can no longer get because of boycotts by drug manufacturers. Others have asked for a single large dose of midazolam, the painkiller at the heart of Alabama’s current three-drug execution protocol.

One inmate, former Anniston resident Anthony Boyd, suggested hanging. And Arthur — who got a last-minute stay of execution this month — argues that the firing squad would be more humane than the court’s current drug combination.

Pittman, the state lawmaker, said he wants to offer more methods of execution to get the process moving again.

“I knew we needed to provide some other options, and since he suggested the firing squad, that was on my mind,” Pittman said.

The senator said Monday that he’s considering adding wording to the bill that would allow execution through asphyxiation with nitrogen gas. Oklahoma passed a nitrogen gas bill last year, and Pittman said he’s heard of assisted-suicide advocates who favor nitrogen.

“It’s hard to say where all this will lead us,” said Robert Dunham, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington D.C. nonprofit. “The courts will probably tell us.”

Dunham said states are taking different paths in response to last year’s Supreme Court decision. Some are looking for new lethal injection drug combinations, some are proposing new methods of execution and some don’t plan to make changes, he said.

Alabama lawmakers have often said they don’t expect the state to bring back hanging, a punishment that could be a racial flashpoint in a state with a history of lynchings. Courts have already rejected Anthony Boyd’s proposal for hanging.

Asked if Boyd and Arthur were merely bluffing — proposing punishments they thought the state would never impose — Dunham said he didn’t think so. Their lawyers, he noted, have a responsibility to seek out the most humane form of execution if they can’t avert it altogether.

Meghan Ryan, a law professor at Southern Methodist University, said there probably are inmates who believe the firing squad is more humane. It could be faster, she said, because it’s done by people trained to kill and tools intended for killing. Even so, she said, it’s difficult to assess the pain caused by any execution method.

Ryan said she expected lethal injection to remain the main execution method in most states.

“The reason lethal injection is here to stay is that it seems more humane than other forms of execution,” Ryan said.

Dunham said polls show a majority of Americans still support the death penalty — but when people are presented with individual methods of execution, lethal injection is the only one a majority consider humane.

To death penalty opponents, the very process of asking inmates to propose alternative execution methods is cruel.

“This situation of asking them to come up with ways they want to be killed, it’s grotesque,” said Esther Brown, director of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty. “I don’t know why people aren’t outraged at this.”

Attempts to reach officials of the attorney general’s capital trial team were unsuccessful Monday. Last week, prosecutors seemed near an agreement with death row inmate Ronald Bert Smith on a proposal for his execution.

According to court records, Smith asked for a single dose of midazolam in place of the three-drug series of injections the state has been using. The state agreed to the one-drug proposal, and a judge was scheduled to review the proposal in his chambers Monday.

Smith is set for execution Dec. 8.



Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.