A few states have authorized the use of nitrogen gas after running into barriers carrying out lethal injections. A shortage in drugs that were previously used to execute prisoners has flipped the question of the death penalty on its head in the United States and sent several states scrambling for new ways to execute.
It was an execution in Oklahoma that sent shockwaves throughout the realms of criminal justice in the U.S. In 2014, when the state botched the execution of Clayton Lockett with midazolam, it changed everything regarding access to drugs being used for lethal injection.
Drug cocktails being used to execute prisoners were impeded by Oklahoma’s botched execution because drug companies refused to supply states using the drugs for executions. Vox reports that “as these companies either stopped supplying drugs or were unable to export to the US, states began to look for new - and sometimes untested - ways to execute prisoners. But these methods have been associated with several high-profile botched executions, leading to more public scrutiny against the death penalty.”
Since states have been in short supply, they’ve been trying to find other ways to compensate for their slowed execution processes after several legal battles. The Appeal noted that Oklahoma approved the use of nitrogen for capital punishment in 2015 and “Mississippi and Alabama followed Oklahoma in 2017 and 2018 in approving nitrogen for executions. But none of the states has actually come up with a way to use it.”
Other states have considered more archaic measures like the electric chair and even firing squads, which Utah, for example, reinstated in 2015 (last used in 2010). All of this is happening despite the fact that the U.S. is one of a small group of countries that still allows the death penalty as a form of punishment.
Around 56 countries carry out executions while nearly twice as many don’t. Of the nations that don’t, some have banned the practice for over a century while others have banned it for several decades.
The death penalty has been linked to racial biases against Black people in its application. It’s also decreased in popularity among people in the U.S. in recent decades, with particularly low approval rates from Black people.
As for the death penalty’s uncertain future, the states that are still confidently planning to execute people seem unfazed by any of the changes taking place around them.