Death by Gas Chamber Is Still a Thing in the U.S

Matt Berman

Believe it or not, a debate is blossoming in Missouri over the use of gas chambers to carry out the death penalty.

Since 1976, the vast majority of death-penalty executions in the United States have been by lethal injections. But four states still use, or could use, gas chambers as a method of capital punishment: Arizona, California, Missouri, and Wyoming. As in California and Arizona, Missouri law allows gas executions as a backup for lethal injections. In Wyoming, gas-chamber executions are allowed only in the event that lethal injections are ruled unconstitutional.

With Missouri's use of injections currently being held up by the state's Supreme Court, Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster has threatened that the state may resort to gas chambers as "the last option we have to enforce Missouri law." The state Supreme Court is refusing to set execution dates until a federal suit over the execution drug used in Missouri's lethal injections is resolved.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon knocked down the idea of going back to the gas chamber on Wednesday. In response to a question about Koster's suggestion, Nixon, a Democrat, said, "We don't have a gas chamber. I don't want to get into it." 

He's not alone in being weary of gas chambers. It's not just that they have a particularly ominious history dating from World War II. They have also resulted in some grisly capital-punishment executions.

In 1992, in the first execution in Arizona in 29 years, lawmakers were horrified by the slow death of Donald Harding in the gas chamber. That experience pushed the state to change its death-penalty laws so that all inmates sentenced to death after November of that year would face only lethal injection. More than 15 years later, the state's attorney general at the time of the execution remained horrified:

I can barely remember the names of the men we executed by lethal injection, and I really can't place their faces. But I remember Harding, writhing and screaming at me as the gas rose around him.

In 1999, a man in Arizona took 18 minutes to die in the first gas execution since Harding. California had a similiarly horrific experience in 1992.

In total, states have executed 11 people in gas chambers since 1976. Regardless of the threats by Missouri's attorney general, it's unlikely that that number will start growing again now.