Could go back to the future

Published 12:00 pm Monday, February 15, 2016

By Sid Salter

Is moving away from lethal injection as a method of execution in the enforcement of the death penalty in favor of, say, a return to the gas chamber, really a step forward?

Earlier this week, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a ruling by Mississippi U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate which blocked state executions based on the claim that drugs contemplated for actual use in the lethal injection chemical “cocktail” were not those expressly authorized for such use by state law.

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Regardless, the wide range of political, social and moral views in Mississippi on the propriety of the death penalty, it’s a more than safe assumption that the majority of Mississippians still favor that ultimate punishment for the most heinous of crimes.

Evidence of what I believe to be the fact of that matter can be seen in Mississippi’s general elections — in which Republicans tightly control seven of the state’s eight statewide elected offices save the post held by Attorney General Jim Hood. Hood is both an unapologetic Democrat and a tough prosecutor who aggressively enforces the death penalty.

Mississippi has engaged in almost all of the accepted forms of execution during the state’s history — including hanging, electrocution, the gas chamber and lethal injection.

Cabana, who died in 2013, transformed over the course of his life from a tough prison warden to one who left his career in corrections behind because he could no longer morally justify taking part in the execution process.

But given recent national and state legal challenges of lethal injection and the chemicals used in that process, Hood has called on the Mississippi Legislature to consider putting the gas chamber back on the table as legal methods of execution in the state in case the state is ultimately prevented from conducting lethal injection executions.

Attorney Jim Craig represents two of the Mississippi prisoners who lost their case at the 5th Circuit. Craig has been a longtime legal player in litigation opposing the death penalty and his opposition hasn’t wavered regardless of execution methods.

Craig, co-director of the Roderick & Solange Justice Center at New Orleans, argues: “Neither compounded pentobarbital or midazolam are in the class of drugs specified by state law for use in executions. There’s good reason for that. In other states, both compounded pentobarbital and midazolam have been used in botched executions, which tortured prisoners to death. Those states have changed their protocols to create safeguards against chemical torture.”

Hood responded to the federal appeals court decision as follows: “For years and years, anti-death penalty groups have clogged the courts with bogus legal claims that only delay justice for murder victims and their families. If these anti-death penalty groups want to change the law, they should be lobbying the Legislature to change the law to stop use of the death penalty, not filing frivolous claims attempting to dupe judges into stopping executions at the last minute.”

The notion that imposition of the death penalty can be somehow sanitized and guaranteed to be painless or free from fear and anxiety is one that flies in the face of what the death penalty really is — which is the most extreme form of punishment. Those who argue otherwise delude themselves.

I’ve covered four executions. Trust me, a return to the gas chamber is not a step toward a “kinder and gentler” imposition of the death penalty.

Frankly, execution methods are primarily argued as holding actions in the legal fight to outlaw the death penalty.

One of my interviews with Don Cabana that I most vividly recall was not one over execution methods, but about the judicial trail leading to the execution chamber. Cabana asked: “Have you ever covered the execution of a rich white guy with the best legal team money could buy?”

I said: “No.” Cabana said: “Yeah, and I haven’t administered one, either.”

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at