The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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July 13, 2013

Attorney General Koster suggests return of gas chamber

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — As a legal battle surrounding lethal injection in the state drags on, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is openly considering the idea of bringing back the gas chamber.

The Missouri Supreme Court has stalled executions until litigation brought by 21 inmates sentenced to death is resolved. The prisoners have alleged that the use of propofol, the drug the state has switched to for executions, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, which is banned by the U.S. Constitution.

Koster said the federal litigation is an “artificial hurdle” that prevents the state from moving forward on executions. If the litigation does not move forward quickly, he said, he believes the General Assembly will “soon be compelled to fund … alternative methods of execution to carry out lawful judgments.”

Aside from lethal injection, the only other option for capital punishment in Missouri is the gas chamber. The state closed its gas chamber, on the grounds of the former Missouri State Penitentiary, in 2004. It was last used was in the 1960s; now it is a tourist attraction at the penitentiary.

Bill Green, a former guard at the prison who now gives tours of the old facility, said the gas chamber works by dropping pellets of a toxic compound into acid. The fumes rise, and the prisoner dies.

Since the 1960s, Missouri has executed more than 60 prisoners using lethal injection. For years, the state had used a lethal mixture of three drugs that sedated the person before killing them, but those drugs recently became unavailable. Last year, Missouri sought to switch to propofol, one of the drugs blamed for musician Michael Jackson’s death. Missouri is the only state that has tried to use propofol for executions.

Gov. Jay Nixon, speaking with reporters in St. Louis last week, said Missouri does not even have a gas chamber and that he did not want to get into the issue.

“Most of those issues involving it are part and parcel of what is going on in the courts about the various methods, and I think it’s best handled by … we’ll just let the judicial branch deal with that,” he said.

Koster’s comments may be of a sign of frustration and a way to apply political pressure more than anything else.

“The Missouri death penalty statute has been, in my opinion, unnecessarily entangled in the courts for over a decade,” Koster said Wednesday.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Koster would not be the first prosecutor to use the threat of seeking to bring back the gas chamber as a form of leverage to raise awareness about stalled executions. A group of district attorneys in California, for example, suggested that their state do it when they moved away from the three-drug system. It did not happen there, and Dieter said it is unlikely that it will happen in Missouri.

“The gas chamber is fraught with pain and uncertainty. I don’t think the Missouri attorney general wants to have to grapple with that issue,” he said. “I think you’re not going to see the gas chamber resurrected in Missouri or other places.”

The problem for many states, Dieter said, is not that the drugs do not exist — they are used daily in hospital and veterinary rooms. The problem is that manufacturers are hesitant about selling them the drugs, and doctors are growing increasingly uncomfortable with administering them. A trend is emerging in which compounding pharmacies produce small batches of drugs used in executions for states.

“You will see these pharmacies more regulated, and that may be a way the states could keep lethal injections going,” Dieter said. “Ultimately, they’re going to have to depend on pharmacists, doctors will have to write a prescription, and I do think there is an inherent problem that states have gotten themselves into.”

Missouri does not have a “death row.” The 46 prisoners currently sentenced to death are in the general population at the Potosi Correctional Center in southeast Missouri. Executions in recent years have taken place at a state diagnostic correctional center about 25 miles east of Potosi.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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