Here's Why Utah Just Voted To Bring Back The Firing Squad (UPDATE)

March 11th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Update -- 3/24/2015: Utah Governor Gary Herbert this week has signed the law reinstating the firing squad as a method for executions when lethal injection drugs are unavailable. Under the new legislation, inmates sentenced to death would be killed by a firing squad only if the state cannot acquire lethal injection drugs 30 days prior to the scheduled execution date.

"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," Marty Carpenter, a spokesman for Herbert's office, said in a statement Monday. "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."

Update -- 3/11/2015: It appears Utah is one step closer to bringing back the controversial firing squad to exert the death penalty in cases where lethal injection fails. As the Associated Press reports, the vote passed the Utah Senate 18-10 yesterday after clearing the state House about a month ago. The legislation now awaits the Governor's signature. It currently remains unclear if Governor Gary Herbert will sign it.  

The move is the latest in a heated debate over alternative execution methods in the state. Back in November, lawmakers moved closer to lifting a decade-long statewide ban on the capital punishment method known as fusillading, or more commonly, death by firing squad. 

Utah’s Clearfield Republican Representative Paul Ray introduced the bill last year, which would allow condemned criminals to be shot dead if the drugs required to administer lethal injection are not available within 30 days of the execution date. “The bill just says we have to have a backup,” Ray said, adding, “Hopefully, we never have to use it.” 

While a firing squad conjures sepia images of a Sergio Leone set—a blindfolded outlaw, cigarette dangling from his lips—the method was used as recently as five years ago, documented widely in cold, quietly unsettling press coverage. Although the option for inmates was removed in 2004 as Utah sought to sidestep unwanted media attention, those sentenced before that date can still choose to die by gunfire.

For myriad reasons, there is something innately chilling about the idea of a modern day, state-sanctioned firing squad. If it’s not the black chair fitted with restraining straps, flanked by stacks of black sandbags, it’s the sheer activeness of the simultaneous discharge of five identical rifle muzzles flashing through a slot in the wall; the target pinned by an executioner over the condemned person’s heart.

But it’s worth it to ask why a firing squad is any more horrid than the methods for which it could once again stand in place of. After all, how it compares to the increasingly problematic, accepted methods could actually be a small revelation for activists concerned with the details of the despicable practice. 

2014 was a very bad year in the history of lethal injection. Maybe even the worst. The most egregious mistakes this year came after the drugs were injected, not from the relatively innocuous IV placement missteps that can often delay the process. Drug performance issues were made possible when European drug manufacturers put tighter restrictions on exporting the barbiturates used for lethal injections out of protest against the death penalty. This shortage has led to unregulated pharmacies providing states with experimental drug cocktails—all with varying degrees of success rates. 

First, there was Michael Wilson in Oklahoma, who was able to famously utter, “I feel my whole body burning,” as the drugs began to course through his veins. A week later, Ohio executed Dennis McGuire with an untested drug cocktail that resulted in a 25-minute procedure, with McGuire gasping throughout. The third, and most horrifically botched case came when Oklahoma executed Clayton Lockett. After 51 minutes of trying to place an IV, executioners eventually pushed a catheter straight through a vein in Lockett’s groin, filling his tissue with the drugs instead of his bloodstream. Executioners closed the blinds and tried to call off the procedure as their patient grimaced and writhed on the gurney, but Lockett eventually died of a heart attack. In July, Arizona chose to inject the same drugs Ohio had used for McGuire into Joseph Rudolph Wood III at 1:57 p.m.—he was pronounced dead an hour-and-52-minutes later. 

So far, 2015 hasn't been great, either. Since January 1, at least eight executions have been carried out, including two using the same problematic experimental drug cocktail, one involving a veteran with PTSD, and another involving a man with an IQ of 67. 

In the wake of last year's botched lethal injection procedures, states have been forced to look for a reliable way to kill their prisoners on death row. Lawmakers in Oklahoma are pushing to use nitrogen gas to asphyxiate inmates as a backup, and Wyoming is considering the firing squad, even though the state's death row is empty. Meanwhile, Tennessee mandated the electric chair for use when lethal injection drugs are not available. So-called lethal injections are oxymoronically conceived to be the most humane way for the government to kill one of its citizens. Traditionally, there’s a sedative, something to make them unaware of their surroundings, followed by a paralytic that stops breathing, and a drug to foment cardiac arrest. Theoretically, this should end the prisoner’s life with relative ease and comfort.  
But as reliably lethal injections with competent medical oversight seems to be dwindling, and our obsession with capital punishment continues on its morbid course, we must come face to face with every available option, especially those that are fittingly barbaric. Ours is a culture steeped in violence, with media and entertainment as the most obvious daily sources—tolerance for it is endemic. So why can’t we come to terms with a legal, actualized form of it on our home turf even if prisoners typically won’t even hear the gunfire before they die. 

But it’s possible that this debate and the possible reversion to fusillading inmates could have some unexpectedly positive effects—like a reevaluation of the death penalty in general. It’s possible that a firing squad could shock the nation into sobriety, but if an hour-and-52-minutes isn’t enough, it’s unclear what is.