JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi House wants to allow the state to execute prisoners using a firing squad if officials decide lethal injection is too expensive or unavailable.
The House amended Senate Bill 2237 Friday, which dealt with making the execution process secret, passing it 80-39 and sending it back to the Senate for more work.
Attorney General Jim Hood asked lawmakers earlier this year to approve alternate execution methods including the firing squad, electrocution and the use of nitrogen gas. Those measures had not, until Friday, passed either chamber.
Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando, said afterward that the firing squad is a more humane, effective and less costly option than lethal injection. He said he thinks the vast majority of Mississippi residents would support an optional firing squad.
“It’s been one of the more common practices through history,” he said. “It’s very instant and about as humane as you can get while performing an execution in my personal opinion.”
Death penalty opponents called the move “barbaric.” Jim Craig, a lawyer who has sued Mississippi over its current method of execution by lethal injection, noted lawmakers voted on the afternoon of Good Friday, the time when Christians believe Christ was crucified.
“I find it frankly disgusting that in the week we’re commemorating the execution of Jesus of Nazareth, the Mississippi Legislature is so devoted to vengeance that they want to bring Mississippi back to the 19th century,” Craig said.
Utah is the only American state that has executed someone by firing squad since the resumption of the death penalty, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. That nonprofit organization opposes executions and tracks the issue. Utah has killed three men by firing squad, the most recent in 2010.
Other states have begun adopting alternate methods of execution to be used if lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional or a state can’t obtain drugs. Oklahoma would use either electrocution or firing squad. Wyoming would use the gas chamber. Tennessee would use electrocution.
Other parts of the bill make secret the names of prison employees at an execution and the pharmacy providing lethal drugs. The measure also bars anyone, including news reporters, from discussing names of relatives of the prisoner or crime victim who attend an execution without their permission. First Amendment advocates say that measure unconstitutionally restrains free speech.
“There are severe implications for First Amendment rights attached that legislators either did not understand or disregarded outright,” said Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association.
The Mississippi Supreme Court heard arguments in November, but hasn’t ruled, on Craig’s lawsuit that seeks to compel the Mississippi Department of Corrections to disclose information about its execution procedure and the supplier of execution drugs. A lower court judge ruled for disclosure in March, but the information has remained secret during appeals.
Hood has said prison employees have refused to work on the execution team because of fears about retaliation. He’s also said pharmacies should be free from “strong-arm tactics” by death penalty opponents.
Craig disputes claims that any person or business has been threatened. The state has introduced no specific evidence of threats in court.