Utah’s decision to bring back the firing squad to carry out death sentences is the latest step in the continuing battle over how the state imposes capital punishment.
Republican Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed a law Monday that makes the firing squad the approved method of execution if drugs needed to carry out a lethal injection are unavailable. Utah is the only state where a firing squad is the backup method.
Oklahoma makes firing squads a third choice after drugs and electrocution.
The issue is more than a theoretical one for Utah, which has used firing squads in the past. The state is out of drugs used in lethal injections with no real hope of getting more, according to Rep. Paul Ray, the Republican who sponsored the legislation.
“We are completely out of the drugs,” Ray told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. “We found out last year that there we had no ability to purchase more drugs. So looking down the road, we had to come up with a backup plan.
“We decided to make it automatic to go to the firing squad to avoid the extra costs of additional litigation,” Ray said. “It was the obvious choice since we had done it before, the protocols and facilities were already in place and nothing required a change.”
Ray said he was aware of complaints by opponents of the death penalty that a firing squad was less humane than lethal injection, but that argument was discounted because drugs are not available.
“We could argue all day about what is more humane,” said the lawmaker, who said he specializes in criminal justice issues. “I think any time you have to take a human life, there may be a way to dress it up and make it look nice, but my concern is make sure that there is justice for the victim.”
The new Utah law reinstated the use of firing squads, a practice that ended in 2004 amid public complaints that it was inhumane.
The mechanics of using the firing squad are well established in Utah.
Five sharpshooters are set up behind a wall about 25 feet from the condemned inmate, sitting in a chair with a target pinned to his chest. The inmate is offered two minutes to say his last words. Gary Gilmore famously used that period to tell his executioners, “Let’s do this.”
The sharpshooters open fire through slots in the wall. One unknown rifleman fires a blank so it won't be known which person fires the death round.
Herbert signed the bill even though he has said that he finds the firing squad “a little bit gruesome.''
“We regret anyone ever commits the heinous crime of aggravated murder to merit the death penalty and we prefer to use our primary method of lethal injection when such a sentence is issued,” gubernatorial spokesman Marty Carpenter stated. “However, when a jury makes the decision and a judge signs a death warrant, enforcing that lawful decision is the obligation of the executive branch.”
Some Utah inmates on death row, who were convicted before 2004, have still been able to choose firing squad. Ronnie Lee Gardner, a convicted murderer who shot and killed a lawyer during a prison escape attempt, was the last inmate executed in Utah by a firing squad in 2010.
There are currently eight inmates on death row, according to the state Department of Corrections. Four inmates have chosen lethal injection. Three have selected the firing squad and one inmate's choice is unspecified.
The execution dates for six on death row are at least five years away.
But two could be executed within the next two to three years depending on appeals. Ron Lafferty, who killed his sister-in-law and her baby daughter in 1984 because the woman questioned his beliefs on polygamy, has already requested the firing squad.
The other inmate, Douglas Stewart Carter,convicted of stabbing 57-year-old Eva Olesen to death during a home-invasion robbery in 1985 has chosen lethal injection. He could become the first to be involuntarily executed by firing squad if the state can't procure the lethal injection drugs, Ray said.
All of the states that have capital punishment and the federal government use lethal injection as their primary method of execution, though the protocols vary.
The most common method involves three injections, including an anesthetic or sedative, followed by pancuronium bromide to paralyze the inmate and potassium chloride to stop the heart. The one- or two-drug protocols typically use a lethal dose of an anesthetic or sedative.
Lethal injection was considered a humane advancement over other forms of execution including poison gas, electrocution, hanging and firing squad. But drug companies, many in Europe where capital punishment is banned, have objected to the use of their drugs to kill people.
In addition, a series of recent executions in Oklahoma, Arizona and Ohio raised questions about whether inmates suffered under some applications of lethal injection. The U.S. Supreme Court this term is scheduled to hear arguments on an Oklahoma case seeking guidance on lethal injection procedures.
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