Here's a jarring fact about last week's decisive Utah ruling on the firing squad: Three of the eight inmates on Utah's death row had chosen to be executed by firing squad rather than lethal injection. Of the eight people who are awaiting execution in the state, four prefer lethal injection, and the final inmate has not yet made a decision. Prior to 2004, Utah allowed inmates to select their own means of execution, and several prisoners sentenced to death chose the firing squad over the potent drug cocktail.
Supporters argue that relying on a five-man sharpshooter team is a more humane and painless way to kill inmates than lethal injection, which just this year has led to three botched executions that left people gasping for breath and grimacing. And now that Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed a law Monday reinstating the firing squad as the back-up means of executing death row inmates if the state is unable to get its hands on the drug cocktail normally used in lethal injections, even the inmates who would prefer a medically-administered death might not have much of a choice.
Utah is not slated to execute any of the eight people on its death row for at least another couple of years. The next two individuals on the docket are Ron Lafferty and Douglas Stewart Carter. Lafferty, who was convicted for killing his sister-in-law and her daughter in 1984, chose the firing squad. Carter, in turn, is on death row for stabbing a woman to death while robbing her home in 1985; he would rather be killed by syringe. But if Utah prison officials do not have access to the necessary drugs when his execution date rolls around, Carter could be killed by firing squad involuntarily.
In its coverage, The Los Angeles Times does not name the remaining two inmates who have chosen a bullet to the heart. Back in 2004 when the Utah legislature was debating the bill to eliminate the firing squad, The Deseret Times reported that three inmates on death row had chosen that execution procedure — Taberon Dave Honi, Troy Kell and Ralph Menzies. Lafferty was not named.
It is not clear if Honi, Kell and Menzies has changed their mind and switched to lethal injection. Regardless, all three still have years of legal appeals ahead of them.
According to Utah procedures, five sharpshooters will line up behind a wall. The prisoner slated for execution will be seated on the other side with a target taped to his chest. One of the five shooters will be armed with a blank, so as to prevent them from knowing who fires the fatal bullet. (A commentary on the moral qualms we have with killing others, even if a jury determines that a person should die.)
“It sounds like the wild west, but it’s probably the most humane way to kill somebody,” Utah state Rep. Paul Ray (R) told the Associated Press. Ray sponsored the new law that returns the firing squad.
In comparison to other methods of execution, supporters of the new Utah law argue that the firing squad is quite tame. According to Deborah Denno, a Fordham University professor and expert in execution methods, studies have demonstrated that death by gunshot is quick and efficient for the victim.
In Utah, the last person to be executed was Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010. Gardner also chose to die by firing squad before the law was changed in 2004.
“I like the firing squad,” Gardner told The Deseret News after making his decision. “It’s so much easier ... and there’s no mistakes.”
But on NBC News Monday, his brother, Randy, criticized Utah lawmakers’ claims that the practice was a fair way to execute:
I had the opportunity to see my brother after four bullets hit his chest, and I could have put my hand in anyone of the holes. It didn’t look very humane to me. He was tied down with a hood over his head. Terrorists around the world and Isis, when they execute people, that’s what they do.
Given the horror stories of rocky executions that the nation witnessed last year, it is not surprising that some death row inmates would prefer a quick death. In Arizona, Joseph Wood lasted one hour and 58 minutes after the drugs were administered, giving his legal team enough time to file for an emergency court order stopping the execution. According to his lawyers' brief, Wood was snorting and gasping for breath for nearly an hour.
Utah lawmakers have decided to switch back to the firing squad, however, not out of concern over the pain caused by lethal injections, but because they are worried they won't be able to get their hands on the drugs needed to execute anyone in a few years' time. As states nationwide continue to face a drug shortage imposed by disapproving European countries, Ray and his colleagues want to ensure that the state will be prepared to carry out executions. As Ray told The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday:
We are completely out of the drugs…So looking down the road, we had to come up with a backup plan…We could argue all day about what is more humane. 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.
Herbert has previously described the firing squad as “a little bit gruesome,” but his spokeswoman justified his decision to sign the measure as a commitment to ensure that the executive branch met its constitutional responsibility to carry out a trial jury’s verdict.
Unsurprisingly, the new law sparked criticism from progressive groups and made headlines in Europe, where the death penalty is regarded as a barbaric relic. Media outlets across the pond picked up on the story quickly, with The Guardian and the BBC running pieces on why Utah had returned to the firing squad. (“How the US kills people in 2015,” noted the headline on The Guardian’s online site.)
European disapproval is one of the primary reasons that Utah and other U.S. states are devising creative ways to execute people in 2015. It is no secret that the European community at large views the death penalty as an inhumane practice that violates contemporary standards of human rights. One of the European Union’s stated objectives is seeking the abolition of capital punishment worldwide.
In 2010, the United Kingdom decided to do something about the U.S.’s continued reliance on the practice by passing regulations preventing its drug suppliers from furnishing American prisons with the drugs used in the lethal cocktails. The European Union followed suit a year later, banning eight drugs including pentobarbital and sodium thiopental, which are commonly relied upon in American executions.
Since the trade bans have been in place, the drug stockpiles in American prisons have plummeted, and states determined to continue with executions have been forced to find creative ways to kill. In Utah, that has meant the return to the firing squad. Oklahoma law also provides that inmates can be shot, but only in the event that the courts decide that lethal injection and the electric chair are unconstitutional.
When Georgia ran out of drugs for its executions, the state simply switched to another recipe. And many other states have relied on pharmacies in the states that mix the drugs themselves rather than look to European suppliers. In order to protect these American-based shops, state lawmakers have passed privacy laws that shield their involvement from public knowledge. ( The Guardian is currently suing several states over these measures.)
Tennessee lawmakers reintroduced the electric chair. Oklahoma and Missouri are even toying with the idea of bringing back the gas chamber, which has a questionable track record when it comes to killing people cleanly and humanely.
Even as other states follow in Utah's footsteps, state Rep. Sheryl Allen, a Republican who pushed to limit executions to lethal injection in the mid-2000s, worried that the first executions by firing squad will tarnish the state's image.
Tourism is a substantial driver of Utah’s economy — according to a recent report from the University of Utah, one in every ten jobs in the state is tied to the tourism dollars in some way. Already, letters have poured in from people across the U.S. and around the world threatening to boycott the state if it reverts to the firing squad. One Seattle resident, Randy Kilmer, promised never to ski in Utah again. Whether the law will have a material impact on the state’s tourism revenues, however, is hard to predict, particularly given that the first execution is still a few years down the road.
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