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Bill: Alter Mississippi execution methods to sidestep suits

Mississippi — facing repeated court challenges to lethal injection and the difficulty of finding drugs — could start looking at alternative ways to carry out the death penalty.

A state House committee on Thursday approved legislation to explicitly legalize the drugs Mississippi currently plans to use to execute death row inmates.

The bill also calls for other methods of execution — including the gas chamber, the firing squad and the electric chair — as backups, given court challenges of those drugs.

Passed by the House Judiciary B Committee, House Bill 638 moves to the House for more debate.

Lethal injection is currently the sole method of execution in Mississippi, but the state is defending itself against lawsuits claiming the drugs it plans to use are illegal under state law and violate constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

In part because of this litigation and because the state hasn’t been able to acquire the execution drugs it once used, no executions have been carried out since 2012.

Mississippi’s law calls for injecting a fast-acting barbiturate, a kind of anesthetic that would quickly put condemned inmates to sleep before other drugs paralyze them and stop their hearts. But makers of pentobarbital, the preferred barbiturate, won’t sell it for use in executions.

Mississippi now plans to replace pentobarbital with a sedative, midazolam, but lawyers say it doesn’t reliably render a person unconscious. They point to executions in other states where prisoners writhed, gasped or and made noise after midazolam was administered. Lawyers says prisoners might remain conscious and feel extreme pain.

House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said he hopes Mississippi’s bill will render these lawsuits moot.

“I’m hopeful we’ll never have to deal with these death penalty issues again,” Gipson told the committee. “These lawsuits may just go away.”

Lawyer Jim Craig, who is handling many of the challenges, said the change away from pentobarbital in the law only affects minor aspects of most of his lawsuits. He said he’d also challenge fallback methods of execution as unconstitutionally cruel.

“Each of the alternatives proposed by the bill – a three-drug lethal injection series beginning with a sedative, nitrogen gas, the firing squad, or electrocution — have at least as many constitutional problems as does (the state’s) current practice,” Craig wrote in an email. “But one thing that is now clear is that the Attorney General and MDOC do not think their current execution drug selection complies with the existing statute.”

The Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also opposes the bill.

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