The Corner

Law & the Courts

Firing Squads Are Honest, At Least

1890: Convicted axe murderer William Kemmler becomes the first person to be executed in the electric chair. Following the passage of the Electrical Execution Law the previous year, an electrician at Auburn State Prison in New York was commissioned to design a device to carry out the sentence, which it was thought would be more humane than hanging, then still the most common form of capital punishment. Kemmler was strapped in and two charges were administered, the first having failed to end his life. Reporters described in gory detail the “Horrible Scene at His Execution,” and electricity pioneer George Westinghouse reportedly quipped: “They would have done better with an axe.” But electrocution would soon become a common means of capital punishment in half the states.

The Hill reports:

The South Carolina House voted on Wednesday to add firing squads as an execution method for prisoners.

The bill passed in a 66-43 vote, with one Democrat voting in favor and seven Republicans voting against it, The Associated Press reported.

The South Carolina Senate passed a similar bill in a 32-11 vote in March.

I’ve seen a good deal of outrage about this, but I don’t really understand why — at least, I don’t understand why such outrage would exist separately from outrage about the death penalty per se. If the state is going to kill people who are convicted of terrible crimes — which I don’t think it should — it should be honest about what it is doing. Lethal injection is a sanitized, medicalized process that effectively euphemizes what is being done. Firing squads, by contrast, are violent and make it obvious. If we are happy to kill people, we should be happy to acknowledge fully what we’re doing. If we’re not willing to acknowledge fully what we’re doing, we shouldn’t be killing people.


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