An Historical Look at Nitrogen Gas, the Electric Chair, and the Firing Squad as Execution Alternatives

With lethal injection in administrative crisis and facing constitutional challenges, some states are looking towards abolition and others towards alternative methods of execution. In an article for The Marshall Project, reporters Maurice Chammah, Andrew Cohen, and Eli Hager explore the histories of nitrogen gas, electrocution, and the firing squad — different methods of execution three states have recently adopted as alternatives to lethal injection in the event lethal injection is declared unconstitutional or execution drugs become unavailable. The article notes the similarities between promises made by proponents of each method that their method would be the most efficient, painless, and humane execution procedure, and discusses the ambivalence engendered by each execution method. The article reports that experts have criticized the manner in which Oklahoma researched and adopted its nitrogen gas alternative as “cavalier.” “What Oklahoma is doing is not a scientific endeavor,” Emory University anesthesiologist Joel Zivot is quoted as saying. “It’s nonsense, empirically.” Highlighting the historical context of the electric chair in light of Tennessee’s decision to reintroduce electrocution, the article chronicles the origins of the method and contrasts Thomas Edison’s promise that the electric chair would be painless and efficient with stories of botched electrocutions. Finally, the article turns to the firing squad, which it quotes Utah Gov. Gary Herbert as calling “a little bit gruesome,” even as he approved the law that brought it back as an option in his state. It recounts the unique historical relationship between Utah’s use of the firing squad and some forms of Mormon theology. Finally, it contrasts the efficiency of the firing squad with the visceral responses it produces: in the words of Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, “We mask the most violent act that society can inflict on one of its members with such an antiseptic veneer. Isn’t death by firing squad, with mutilation and bloodshed, more honest?”

(M. Chammah, A. Cohen, and E. Hager, “After Lethal Injection,” The Marshall Project, June 1, 2015.) See Lethal Injection and Methods of Execution.