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New state law on execution methods may...

New state law on execution methods may get clarity from Alabama death penalty case

By: Sid Salter - October 4, 2023

Sid Salter

Columnist Sid Salter writes that there are plenty of legitimate discussions to be had regarding the imposition of the death penalty in Mississippi.

Mississippi currently has 35 inmates on Death Row, according to Mississippi Department of Corrections data – 34 men and one woman. 

National debates and disputes over execution methods in recent years effectively brought executions to a halt even in the 27 states like Mississippi that authorize capital punishment for particularly heinous crimes. 

Those debates have led several states, including Mississippi, Alabama, and Oklahoma, to devise new strategies to get around those chemical debate obstacles. All three states authorized nitrogen hypoxia as a means of execution. Nitrogen hypoxia is a form of suffocation. 

The Wall Street Journal notes that “the 2018 Alabama law approving this method describes it as ‘nitrogen hypoxia,’ but that’s not quite right. Hypoxia means reduction of oxygen levels in the blood. Breathing pure nitrogen induces anoxia, a total depletion of blood oxygen.” 

The nitrogen method has yet to be utilized, but Alabama officials are asking their state Supreme Court to clear the way to do so. That ruling, and the subsequent actual use of it in Alabama, will impact methodologies across the country in death penalty states. 

Mississippi’s law passed in 2022 and gives the Miss. Department of Corrections even stronger latitude in making means of execution decisions. MDOC officials can now choose between lethal injection, nitrogen hypoxia (anoxia), firing squad, or electrocution as the means by which state prisoners are put to death. 

Since 1976, Mississippi has executed 23 prisoners. All were male, 17 were white, and 6 were black. Four were executed in the gas chamber. The remaining 19 were executed by lethal injection. 

Mississippi’s most recent execution was that of Thomas Edwin Loden Jr., a 58-year-old ex-Marine recruiter, who was executed for the Itawamba County murder of Leesa Marie Gray, 16. Loden died by lethal injection. 

The number of Death Row inmates in Mississippi has declined over the last 20 years in that there are about 40 percent fewer inmates awaiting execution. The execution hiatuses fueled by the lethal injection chemical battles ground the process to a near halt and during those hiatuses, inmates died of natural causes or won legal appeals. 

But one inmate, James Billiot, has been on Death Row since his Dec. 1982 conviction for the Thanksgiving Day, 1981, murder of his mother, stepfather and 14-year-old stepsister. The trio was beaten to death with an eight-pound sledgehammer. 

Still on Mississippi’s Death Row are inmates Anthony Carr, 55, and Robert Simon Jr., 57, who were convicted and sentenced to death for the Feb. 2, 1990, murders of the Carl “Bubba” Parker family at their Walnut community home on Hwy. 322 southwest of Lambert in Quitman County. 

The family left the Riverside Baptist Church Bible study class at about 9 p.m. to return to their home. Parker, 58; his wife Bobbie Jo, 45; daughter Charlotte Jo, 9; and son Gregory, 12, were active in the church where Bobbie Jo served as the church secretary and pianist. 

Murder was the kindest thing that happened to this innocent family during a senseless rampage of torture, assault, arson and robbery. 

There are plenty of legitimate discussions to be had regarding the imposition of the death penalty in Mississippi. What about the morality of the death penalty? What about disparities in who receives the death penalty based on race or economic status? What about Mississippi’s failures to fund a credible, working indigent defense and post-conviction appeal process? 

Mississippi adopted the notion of giving MDOC officials discretion over execution methods as a direct response to roadblocks raised nationally by death penalty opponents. It is a response to shortages of the chemicals used in lethal injection or in the gas chamber caused by varying degrees of legal challenges, corporate shaming, or other public protests. 

As one who has witnessed executions (gas chamber and lethal injections) at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, please allow me to point out the absurdity of the notion that we ever had or ever will have a neat, antiseptic method of execution in which there is a guarantee of no pain or suffering on the part of the inmate. 

About the Author(s)
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Sid Salter

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications at Mississippi State University. Sid is a member of the Mississippi Press Association's Hall of Fame. His syndicated columns have been published in Mississippi and several national newspapers since 1978.