Q&A: Why Utah wants to revive execution by firing squad

Are firing squads effective? Here are answers to questions about Utah proposal to revive the execution method

Utah is poised to bring back death by firing squad.

Republican state Rep. Paul Ray introduced the legislation in December, calling firing squads "the most humane" method out of all options. The legislation, which passed the state Senate on Tuesday, would require the use of a firing squad if lethal injection drugs are unavailable.

The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who has not said whether he will sign it.

Ray said he began drafting the bill last March, before a host of executions by lethal injection last year in Oklahoma, Arizona and Ohio in which inmates appeared to writhe in pain and gasp for air. Witnesses said a condemned murderer in Arizona snorted and struggled for breath for more than 90 minutes before he died.

Those executions have stirred debate about allowing alternative methods. This, coupled with a national shortage of the anesthetic that is part of the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections, has thrown the use of capital punishment into disarray.

Here's a look at the some of the questions surrounding Utah's proposal.

Has Utah used firing squads before?

Utah allowed inmates to choose death by firing squad after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The state adopted lethal injection as its preferred method in 2004 after heightened media attention, but that didn't apply to inmates already on death row. Inmates who chose execution by firing squad before May 3, 2004, are entitled to that method.

What other states use firing squads?

Oklahoma authorizes firing squads only if lethal injection and electrocution are held unconstitutional. The state would first use the electric chair if lethal injection is ever held to be unconstitutional, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Utah is essentially the only state where firing squad is a viable option, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the center.

When was the last death by firing squad in the U.S.?

The last firing squad execution occurred in Utah in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner chose the method.

Are any other states considering firing squads now?

Wyoming proposed a bill that would allow firing squads, but it died Friday. Arkansas is considering a similar bill, Dieter said, but it has not passed either chamber of the Legislature.

Are firing squads effective?

Execution by firing squad is not foolproof.

Dieter recalled a case in Utah from 1879 when a firing squad missed murderer Wallace Wilkerson's heart. Wilkerson wanted to face the executioners without a hood over his face as a show of bravery.

With a white target pinned over his heart, Wallace straightened up and braced himself. But that move also raised the target and the firing squad missed, according to newspaper reports. It took him 27 minutes to die.

"Compared to a botched execution, I guess firing squad is at least quick," Dieter said. "But compared to a properly administered lethal injection, it's a step backward."

Is the use of firing squads humane?

Proponents argue that the method is more humane than lethal injection. Lethal injections, they say, can lead to prolonged suffering if improperly administered.

Paul Cassell, a criminal law professor at the University of Utah, said Ray's proposal was a "common-sense backup plan." Those who oppose the legislation appear to be essentially motivated by opposition to the death penalty, not to this method of execution, he said.

"The first choice for an execution is lethal injection, in Utah and elsewhere," Cassell said. "But death penalty opponents have succeeded in making the availability of the required drugs uncertain."

To avoid unnecessary delaying executions — and further trauma to victims' families — it makes sense to have an alternative method in place, he argued.

What do opponents of capital punishment say?

Death penalty opponents say their distaste for the legislation is two-pronged: They disagree with the death penalty, but also find execution by firing squad especially egregious. If the shooters miss the heart, the inmate could bleed to death slowly.

"This particularly barbaric method does draw attention to the barbaric nature of the practice," said Anna Brower, a public policy advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. "We've rushed to make sure we have a way to kill people instead of questioning whether the death penalty is a responsible way to handle criminals in Utah."

Do other countries use firing squads?

Yes. For example, an Indonesian firing squad executed six convicted drug traffickers in January, five of them foreigners. Two years ago, Somalia's government used a firing squad to execute a man convicted of murdering a journalist. A Saudi firing squad killed seven men convicted of armed robbery in 2013.

How are firing squads used in Utah?

The inmate is typically bound to a chair with a leather strap, with a hood over the head, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Then, a doctor pins a target over the inmate's heart. Five shooters — one of them given a gun with blank rounds — fire at the inmate. The chair is surrounded by sandbags to absorb the inmate's blood.

Is the use of firing squads tied to Utah's founding by Mormons?

There has been speculation that the practice was once tied to the Mormon principle of "blood atonement," which says certain sins are so serious that people must spill their blood to make amends. Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounces any connection between firing squads and blood atonement.

"Mormons disown that idea now," Dieter said. "They say, 'We do not require bloodletting.'"

The church said in a statement that it regards capital punishment as "a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed processes of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment."

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