Utah Is Under Fire Over Firing Squads


If all goes according to plan, four days from now John Albert Taylor will eat a pizza, smoke a cigarette, then be strapped into a chair and shot in the heart for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Charla King in 1989.

If a bill to be introduced this month in the Legislature becomes law, the 36-year-old Taylor may be the last person executed by firing squad in the United States.

A warehouse at Utah State Prison is being outfitted with one-way mirrors, plywood partitions with gun ports and a wooden armchair in preparation for Friday’s scheduled execution in the only state that allows condemned inmates to choose between a firing squad and a lethal injection.


At a time when only unusual executions receive much media scrutiny, Taylor’s case is attracting attention around the world and is renewing a statewide controversy over capital punishment that involves history, religion and high emotions on all sides.

Appalled by the spectacle, state Rep. Sheryl L. Allen is drafting a bill to abolish what many believe is a barbaric practice that could tarnish the image of a state celebrating its centennial and gearing up to host the Winter Olympics in 2002.

“As we enter our second hundred years,” said Allen, whose proposed legislation is backed by Gov. Mike Leavitt, “I’d like us to convey a better image than this. I want the world to look at us positively, as a progressive state.”

A month ago, Taylor fired his lawyer, dropped his appeals and denounced lethal injection--saying he did not want to “flop around like a dying fish” on a gurney.

His announcement came as a bombshell.

State corrections officials had to relearn firing-squad protocol not used since the execution of convicted killer Gary Gilmore in 1977, which ended a 10-year hiatus in executions of any kind in America.

They also were inundated by an embarrassing flood of requests from would-be volunteers eager to fire a slug into Taylor’s heart. This despite guidelines requiring that one of the five anonymous marksmen be supplied with a blank so that none would know who fired a fatal round, thereby avoiding possible lifelong guilt.


Among those who say they want to kill Taylor are law enforcement officers across the nation, a 19-year-old Air Force cadet in Colorado Springs, a squad of soldiers from Ft. Bragg, N.C., and a “guy claiming to be a CIA agent,” according to Jack Ford, spokesman for the Corrections Department.

The actual firing squad members will be officers selected from lists supplied by local law enforcement agencies.

“We let the agencies choose the men,” Ford said, “because we wanted the most reliable, dependable and well-adjusted individuals possible. If we left it up to volunteers, some might have a ghoulish desire to inflict damage rather than execute the man.”

That is only one of his concerns.

“We prefer to do lethal injections,” Ford said, “because instead of watching a guy go to sleep, witnesses will watch someone get shot. We will have a paramedic crew on hand in case it is more violent than someone thought it would be.”

Then there is the problem of blood-borne pathogens.

“We have no idea where the blood will splatter,” he said. “There will be a pan under the chair to collect the drip.”

‘Blood Atonement’

Foes of capital punishment--including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the Vatican--hope the attention Taylor receives will convince the public of the futility of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime, and spotlight the primitive grotesquerie of firing squads in particular.


Taylor’s execution would be the 49th in Utah since 1852 and the 40th by firing squad. He is one of six inmates scheduled to be executed this month in the United States.

Historically, only a handful of states executed the condemned by firing squad. Over the years, most of those states turned to ostensibly more humane methods of execution: electrocution, lethal injection and hanging.

In 1980, Utah’s Legislature changed the state’s capital punishment law to replace death by hanging with lethal injection--but retained the option of using a firing squad.

The only other state that still has firing squads on the books is Idaho, but it allows them only with the approval of corrections officials--which is considered highly unlikely.

In a state with deep Mormon roots, Taylor’s choice has resurrected a historical controversy surrounding “blood atonement”--the idea that only by spilling their blood can the condemned hope to receive forgiveness in the next life.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaders here vehemently deny that blood atonement was ever part of their doctrine.


But historians and criminologists say execution by firing squad in Utah is a relic of the rough side of Mormonism’s past, when the church’s version of the Old Testament world view drew violent reactions from non-Mormon Western frontier settlers.

Mormon Church leader Brigham Young maintained: “There are transgressors who, if they knew themselves, and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke thereof might ascent to God to appease the wrath that is kindled against them.”

Such feelings were weakened by changes in doctrine aimed at helping the church move into the mainstream. For example, in 1890, the church outlawed polygamy. In 1978, it allowed black men to become priests.

But some church members still believe that murderers have no opportunity of avoiding “outer darkness”--a place out of the presence of heavenly beings where only the most evil of spirits are sent--unless they spill their blood.

Choice of Punishment

When Mark Hofmann confessed to killing two people in 1985 with homemade pipe bombs to cover up his forgery of Mormon historical documents, his father said he hoped that his son, if guilty, would pay for the crime by shedding blood. Hofmann was sentenced to life in state prison.

And potential jurors in capital homicide trials are frequently asked whether they adhere to the idea of blood atonement.


For this and other reasons, the new effort to ban firing squad executions may be a tough sell. State Rep. Melvin R. Brown, for one, wonders: “What’s wrong with choice in this world?

“I don’t have a problem with people having an option,” he said. “And I honestly don’t believe we should operate government based on what is or isn’t our image.”

L. Kay Gillespie, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Weber State University in Ogden and the state official in charge of documenting Utah executions, also takes issue with the proposed legislation.

“I like the option; it’s like sending a kid out to get the switch to be spanked with,” Gillespie said. “Firing squads keep the punishment in the justice system rather than in the medical field. There has to be some sense of paying for your crime beyond simply being put to sleep.”

Beyond that, Gillespie, who has witnessed three executions by lethal injection, argues that “while some think that is a peaceful and humane way to die, we really can’t know.”

‘Not Guilty’ Claim

In fact, execution by lethal injection is not always a rapid, pleasant way of producing unconsciousness and painless death, according to Amnesty International, which has documented numerous botched executions.


In Texas, for instance, two minutes into the Dec. 13, 1988, execution of Raymond Landry, the syringe came out of his vein, spraying deadly chemicals across the room toward witnesses. Landry was pronounced dead 40 minutes after being strapped to the gurney and 24 minutes after the drugs first started flowing.

In the 39 executions by firing squad in Utah since 1852, the time it took to die varied from 15 seconds to 27 minutes, Gillespie said.

Some of those executions took place at the scene of the crime. Only one man had to be dragged to the chair. One went laughing, sure that he would be rescued at the last minute. Before four .30-caliber rifle slugs tore into Gilmore’s heart, he glanced at the death room’s dark ceiling and said, “Let’s do it.”

Like Gilmore, Taylor is challenging state officials to show the courage of their convictions and have him shot to death. Unlike Gilmore, he insists that he is not guilty.

Determined to Die

Taylor has said that although he did burglarize the King family’s apartment on June 23, 1989, he did not kill Charla.

The evidence suggested otherwise, officials said. Her mother found the girl dead in her mother’s bed. She was naked and a telephone cord was tied around her neck. Her mouth was stuffed with her underwear and her head was wrapped with her mother’s nightgown.


Charla would have turned 12 the following day.

Taylor’s fingerprints were found on the telephone from which the cord was cut. Neighbors said they saw him watching Charla in a nearby park a few days before the murder. One neighbor saw Taylor at the foot of the staircase outside Charla’s apartment building on the day she was killed.

Now, Taylor is the only one who can save his life--at least temporarily, because in Utah a governor has no authority to commute a death sentence. Taylor, who has exhausted his state court appeals, could abort his execution by appealing in federal court. That could delay his execution by up to five years.

But he seems determined to die. Taylor, who was raised as a Mormon, recently was baptized in the Catholic Church. He also chose a last meal of pizza and asked for permission to smoke a cigarette during his death walk.

At the appointed hour, he will be strapped into the chair and a hood will be placed over his head. A physician will use a stethoscope to determine the exact location of his heart, and mark the spot with a square piece of red cloth. Then five .30-caliber rifles will fire as one, perhaps for the last time.

Ford, the corrections official, said he asked the condemned man if he planned to back out at the last minute.

Taylor said no.