Ricky Bell, the warden at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tenn., gives a tour of the prison's execution chamber Wednesday, Oct. 13, 1999.
Mark Humphrey/AP Photo

National regression on capital punishment

As states run out of the drugs necessary for executions by lethal injection, some are starting to look anew at alternatives – including old ones. In Utah and Wyoming, for example, firing squads are getting a second look.
In Tennessee meanwhile, Gov. Bill Haslam (R) last week approved state legislation to allow using the electric chair to execute criminals if the chemicals for a lethal injection are unavailable. Dan Barry highlighted the ways in which the evolution of capital punishment has apparently come to a halt.
Tennessee’s decision is breathtakingly regressive, according to Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham University School of Law and a national expert on capital punishment. States have historically gone to new methods of execution, she said, from hanging to electrocution, to lethal gas, to lethal injection.
“But they’re going backwards,” Ms. Denno said of Tennessee. “They’re going back to using a method of execution that was basically rejected because it was so problematic. That’s never happened before.”
That’s no small detail. For those who believe the government should be able to kill its own citizens, there’s been a desire to adapt to changing norms and technologies. When one method of execution is deemed gruesome, cruel, and of dubious efficacy, policymakers move towards another.
If we look back far enough, it’s not a short list. From stoning to guillotines, nooses to firing squads, electric chairs to lethal injections, the arrow has generally moved in one direction.
That is, until very recently.
As Rachel explained on the show on April 30:
“Over time, we’ve executed people by a number of different methods in this country. And every time, we evolve out of one old method and into a new one we tell ourselves that the new one is a more humane way of doing it, a more sanitized way of doing it. It’s a more certain way of killing people.
“And then, eventually, to use a legal term, our evolving standards of decency grow us out of our latest method of killing people and into a new one.”
But it appears proponents of capital punishment have run out of new ideas, while also running out of the chemical compounds necessary to kill prisoners.
And so some believe the nation should go backwards, giving up on even looking for new, more humane, and more effective methods.