Nov. 29 (UPI) — The U.S. Department of Justice opened the door this week to alternative methods of executing prisoners, including death by firing squad, to go into effect before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office.
An amended final rule, published Friday in the Federal Register lets the U.S. government execute prisoners by lethal injection or using “any other manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence was imposed,” including electrocution or inhaling nitrogen gas. The rule goes into effect Dec. 24, a little more than a month before Biden becomes president.
The Justice Department under leadership of U.S. Attorney General William Barr has ramped up the executions of federal prisoners for the first time in 17 years. Eight federal prisoners have been executed this year, more than in the past 30 years. Most recently, Orland Hall, 49, was executed in Terre Haute, Ind., last week after serving more than 25 years for the murder of Arkansas teen Lisa Rene.
Three prisoners of the 57 on federal death row are scheduled to be executed in the “lame duck” period between now and when Biden takes office. That includes Brandon Bernard, who is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Dec. 10 in Indiana.
A number of states where the death penalty is legal have had a difficult time procuring the drugs for lethal injections.
A group of Oklahoma death row inmates sued the Justice Department in February arguing that the state’s lethal injection protocol was inhumane.
In 2014 Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack amid complications during his execution. An autopsy showed the state had used the wrong drug — potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride — during the process.
Thirty-two states are limited to executing prisoners by lethal injection, but Mississippi, Utah and Oklahoma still allow death by firing squad, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Seven states permit lethal gas after the primary method of lethal injection, including Alabama, Arizona, California, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wyoming.
But Robert Dunham, the information center’s executive director tweeted Saturday that it was unlikely that the change would mean any death row prisoners would be executed by any method other than lethal injection.
“Every state that authorizes capital punishment has lethal injection as its primary method of execution,” Dunham said. “Technically, the regulation would permit federal executions by the back-up method of firing squad. That could conceivably apply only to federal prisoners sentenced to death in Mississippi, Oklahoma, or Utah, if the conditions triggering the back-up method apply.”
The Biden administration has promised to overhaul the criminal justice system and address racial disparities in federal sentencing.
An analysis released earlier this month by the Death Penalty Information Center found that people of color — particularly Black Americans — have disproportionately faced execution in the United States.
Of the 57 people currently on federal death row, 34 are people of color. More than two dozen are Black men and some were convicted by all-White juries.