Utah Revives Firing Squads In State Executions

Returning? The firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. Lawmakers on Wednesday endorsed a proposal to resurrect the practice to head off problems with lethal injection drugs
Returning? The firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. Lawmakers on Wednesday endorsed a proposal to resurrect the practice to head off problems with lethal injection drugs

Ten years after banning the use of firing squads in state executions, Utah lawmakers on Wednesday endorsed a proposal to allow the practice again to avoid problems with lethal-injection drugs.

The proposal from Republican Rep. Paul Ray of Clearfield would call for a firing squad if the state cannot obtain the lethal injection drugs 30 days before the scheduled execution.

Utah dropped firing squads out of concern about the media attention, but Ray said it’s the most humane way to execute someone because the inmate dies instantly.

‘We have to have an option,’ Ray told reporters on Wednesday. ‘If we go hanging, if we go to the guillotine, or we go to the firing squad, electric chair, you’re still going to have the same circus atmosphere behind it. So is it really going to matter?’

After a 20-minute discussion, an interim panel of Utah lawmakers approved the idea on a 9-2 vote Wednesday.

The proposal still needs to go through the full legislative process once lawmakers convene for their annual session in January.

Rep. Mark Wheatley, a Democrat from Murray, voted against the measure because he said Utah doesn’t have a problem that needs to be fixed.

Santaquin Republican Rep. Marc Roberts, who cast the other opposing vote, said he didn’t think the proposal was needed and is unsure of his own view on capital punishment.

Under current Utah law, death by firing squad is only an option for criminals sentenced to death before 2004. It was last used in 2010.

Ray said his proposal gives Utah flexibility if it’s unable to obtain the drugs needed in a lethal injection.

For years, states used a three-drug combination to execute inmates, but European drugmakers have refused to sell them to prisons and corrections departments out of opposition to the death penalty.

That move has led states to use different types, combinations and doses of lethal drugs, but those methods have been challenged in court.

Because of the challenges with the drugs and prolonged executions earlier this year in Oklahoma and Arizona, lawmakers in Utah and elsewhere are looking for alternatives.

Lawmakers in Wyoming have endorsed a proposal similar to Ray’s, and they plan to take it up when their session begins in 2015. In Oklahoma, one lawmaker has proposed using nitrogen gas to asphyxiate inmates.

Critics have said the method is not without risks and will renew the intense media attention Utah had wanted to avoid.

Despite being restrained, an inmate could still move or the shooters could miss the heart, causing a slower, painful death, according to the Washington, D.C.,-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

One such case appears to have happened in Utah’s territorial days back in 1879. According to newspaper accounts, a firing squad missed Wallace Wilkerson’s heart and it took him 27 minutes to die.

Utah stopped allowing inmates to choose a firing-squad execution in 2004, citing the excessive media attention it gave prisoners. Those sentenced to death before the law changed still have the option of choosing it.

It was last used in 2010 when Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by five police officers with .30-caliber Winchester rifles. Gardner was given a death sentence for fatally shooting a Salt Lake City attorney in 1985 while trying to escape from a courthouse.

Gardner was the third person to die by firing squad after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Several other inmates on Utah’s death row have opted to die by gunfire, but they are all several years away from exhausting the appeals of their death sentences, according to the state attorney general’s office.

SOURCE: The Associated Press

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