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Missouri threatens return of gas chambers for death row inmates as lethal injection supplies reach sell-by dates

State’s attorney general looks to 'alternative methods'

The gas chamber could be brought back to execute death row inmates in Missouri because lethal injection supplies are about to reach their expiration date, the state’s attorney general said.

Pharmaceutical companies have moved in recent years to boycott the use of their drugs for “corrections”, and Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said the state may be forced to resort to “alternative methods of execution” if legal proceedings are not rushed through in time.

The last time the gas chamber was used in Missouri was 1965, after which a US Supreme Court ruling meant that most states gave up the practice and dismantled their facilities.

The state law was not changed, however, and still reads that executions can be carried out “by the administration of lethal gas or by means of the administration of lethal injection.”

And Koster said: “It may be the last option we have to enforce Missouri law.”

The motion is seen as an attempt to hurry through a Supreme Court decision on the use of lethal levels of the surgical anaesthetic propofol, which has never been used for executions before.

A law suit brought by 21 Missouri death row inmates says that the untested injection, 15 times the dosage of that used in medical procedures, “presents a substantial risk of inflicting unnecessary pain” and as such violates their constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

But Koster said: “This court should not allow the mere pendency of ongoing federal litigation to effectively eliminate capital punishment in Missouri simply because the lawsuits outlast the department’s supply of propofol.”

He has asked the Supreme Court to set dates of execution for two of the inmates bringing the law suit, Joseph Paul Franklin and Allen Nicklasson, before the window of opportunity afforded by the drugs’ expiration date runs out.

“The department has only three quantities of propofol remaining,” he said. “The oldest quantity expires this October, the next batch expires in May 2014, and the newest supply expires in 2015. As each supply expires, the department's ability to carry out lawfully imposed capital sentences diminishes.”

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC, said every lethal injection in the last two years had been carried out using the drug pentobarbital, but states are having difficulties in replacing supplies.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “Drug manufacturers don’t want to get involved in US executions.”

Missouri is one of four states with the gas chamber as an alternative for executions. The last time this was exercised was in Arizona in 1999. Missouri used it to execute 39 prisoners from 1938 to 1965.                                     

The airtight gas chamber contained a steel chair, in which the condemned prisoner was restrained with leather straps, and cyanide pellets were dropped into sulphuric acid to create lethal fumes.