Utah Pol on Death Penalty: Let’s Do It

by Tim Cavanaugh

A Utah legislator will introduce a bill to bring back firing-squad executions, calling this the “most humane” method of capital punishment.

Republican state representative Paul Ray will introduce legislation during the next legislative session, which begins in January, to allow condemned prisoners the option of a shooting death.

Utah outlawed this method of execution in 2004, but murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was convicted of killing two people in the 1980s, was executed by a firing squad in 2010 under a grandfather provision. The Beehive State also has a strong history of firing-squad executions that, according to Associated Press, makes it more likely the state might go back to the practice following a less-than-optimal execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma in April:

A couple other death row inmates have opted to die by gunfire instead of lethal injection in Utah, but they are all several years away from exhausting the appeals of their death sentences, Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker said. Ray’s proposal would give all inmates the option.

Lethal injection, the default method of execution in the U.S., has received heightened scrutiny after secrecy and drug shortages in recent years and the April incident in Oklahoma, when inmate Clayton Lockett’s vein collapsed and he died of a heart attack more than 40 minutes later.

Ray and lawmakers in other states have suggested firing squads might be the cheapest and most humane method.

“The prisoner dies instantly,” Ray said. “It sounds draconian. It sounds really bad, but the minute the bullet hits your heart, you’re dead. There’s no suffering.”

A death-penalty opponent cited by AP noted that death by firing squad is also not foolproof, but he had to reach all the way back to Utah’s territorial era for an example of an 1897 execution in which the prisoner took 27 minutes to die.

This writer — abstractly opposed to capital punishment but sympathetic to the arguments of supporters — made a somewhat similar argument last month. There’s no nice way to kill a person. Lethal injection is not any more humane than another form of execution, and condemned prisoners all the way back to Major John André have been requesting death by firing squad. It’s cheaper and faster, and it makes the point of the punishment much more clearly than poison does. There’s no reason to outlaw it except to kid ourselves that killing a human is the same as putting a family pet “to sleep.”

(Note on the title: Although Gary Gilmore did say “Let’s do it” out loud, according to The Executioner’s Song his actual last words, spoken to a prison priest, were “Dominus vobiscum.” Even convicted killers had more class in the Seventies.)

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