One shot to the heart results in immediate death and according to Utah Representative Paul Ray (R-Clearfield) using a firing squad to execute death penalty criminals is more humane than lethal injection. “It sounds like the Wild West,” says Ray but the prisoner “dies instantly” and there is “no suffering.” While he admits it sounds “draconian,” the Utah lawmaker says he will introduce legislation in the January 2015 legislative session to bring back the firing squad as a means of execution.
Although, as Ray noted, the use of a firing squad to kill death row criminals may seem inhumane, Utah has used this method of execution before. Most recently, in 2010, Ronnie Lee Gardner was shot dead by five anonymous marksmen armed with .30 caliber Winchester rifles. Gardner, convicted in 1985 of the cold-blooded murder of an attorney during a failed escape attempt from a Salt Lake City courthouse, had spent more than half of his life in prison.
On the day of Gardner’s execution in 2010, he was strapped to a metal chair in a death chamber replete with bulletproof glass windows to protect the 14 witnesses from a stray shot or ricochet. Gardner was asked if he had any final words and then, after a black bag was placed over his head, he was executed by the firing squad. Authorities had attached a small, white target to Gardner’s jumpsuit, just over his heart, so that the marksmen had a clear target to aim for. The firing squad was behind a brick wall, the rifles were placed into slots in the wall and only four of the rifles contained live ammunition, which allowed the executioners plausible deniability as to whether or not they killed Gardner.
Although the countdown began at the number five, on the count of two shots rang out, Gardner was shot in the heart and was pronounced dead two minutes later. Witnesses described eerie movement in Gardner’s hand after he had been shot as he clenched and unclenched his fist. Even though death by firing squad was eliminated in 2004 in the state of Utah, prisoners who were sentenced to death before the change in law have the option to choose execution by lethal injection or firing squad. Thus, Gardner chose the method of his own execution, not by lethal injection but by a shot to the heart.
Representative Ray is pushing to bring back death by firing squad in the wake of the “botched” lethal injection execution of Clayton Lockett in April of this year. Lockett’s execution was stopped mid-process after one of his veins burst after he was injected with a lethal drug cocktail. Because of the medical anomaly, the drugs were ineffective and after 20 minutes, the execution was halted. Witnesses were prevented from seeing Clayton who, apparently in physical agony, finally died of a heart attack – by some accounts as much as 43 minutes after his initial injection.
Of the last 49 executions in Utah over a span of 160 years, 40 of them have been by firing squad. Nevertheless, Ray is likely to face stiff opposition as critics have described execution by firing squad as archaic, cruel and excessively violent.
Concerns have been raised that if the prisoner were to move, even slightly, the marksmen might miss their target thus necessitating a second shot. Richard Dieter, the executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center argues that while the goal of a firing squad would be a quick and accurate execution, “just a little movement” by the prisoner could change that.
On the other hand, the potential for a botched execution by the current method of lethal injection is clearly a concern as was evidenced by the accidental but decidedly inhumane execution of Clayton Lockett. While there is no doubt that criminals sentenced to the death penalty are ultimately going to die, the debate on whether to shoot them, or inject them to achieve that end is likely going to be a heated one.
By Alana Marie Burke