Legislators in Utah and other states are seeking a return to their capital punishment pasts in light of the possibility that drugs currently being used in lethal injections may become unavailable. The state has a long history of using a firing squad to mete out its ultimate punishment. In 1977, Utah executed Gary Gilmore by firing squad. He was the first convict to receive the death penalty after a five-year ban on capital punishment was lifted by the Supreme Court. Since then, only Utah and Oklahoma give inmates the option to choose to die by a firing squad.
A bill, which is likely to hit the full Utah legislature early in 2015, was approved by a vote of 9-2 on Wednesday by the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee. The proposed legislation allows for the return of firing squads for executions by mandating that every execution carried out is preceded by a court hearing which would take place at least 30 days prior to the scheduled execution date. The judge would review the case to make a determination on whether or not the state had a sufficient supply of the drugs used in lethal injections. Should the judge rule that drugs were not available in sufficient numbers to carry out the lethal injection, the execution would have to be done by firing squad.
Utah State Rep. Paul Ray told The Salt Lake Tribune that currently, Utah does not have the correct mixture of drugs to perform lethal injections. He blames the overseas company who produces the mixture of drugs, saying that it “is refusing to sell to the United States” because the company is in opposition to the death penalty. Ray believes that a firing squad is “one of the most humane ways” to carry out the death penalty due to the fact that death is almost instantaneous. He refers to the accounts of condemned prisoners gasping for breath and “struggling” after being injected with the lethal drugs.
Typical procedure for execution by firing squad begins with the condemned tied to a chair with leather straps that cross his head and waist. The prisoner sits in front of an oval wall made of canvas. Sandbags used to absorb blood surround the chair. The inmate’s head is covered with a black hood and a doctor uses a stethoscope to find his heart. He then pins a circular target made of white cloth over the heart. Twenty feet away, inside of an enclosure, stand five shooters. Each carries a .30 caliber rifle loaded with one round. In order to leave doubt in the mind of the shooters as to whether or not they fired a fatal shot, one of the rifles is loaded with a blank. The riflemen then aims through a narrow opening in the canvas wall before firing simultaneously with the others. Death is caused by blood loss due to the rupturing of a large blood vessel or heart or by the tearing of lung tissue. When shock settles in, it causes the blood supply to the brain to slow, causing the condemned to slip into unconsciousness. Should the shots miss the inmate’s heart, either accidentally or purposefully, the condemned will slowly bleed to death.
Utah’s bill came about partly in response to the execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett. According to witnesses, Lockett struggled for breath and cried, “Oh, man,” after he was injected. He died from a heart attack approximately thirty minutes after being injected. His execution, in addition to others performed after the overseas drug companies stopped supplying a specific drug used in the lethal injection mixture, caused a nationwide conversation regarding lethal injections and the practice of executing prisoners itself.
Although both Oklahoma and Utah allow the use of firing squads to carry out death sentences, only Utah has performed an execution using that method since the reinstatement of the death penalty. The state has executed three men by firing squad since then: Gilmore, John Albert Taylor and Ronnie Lee Gardner (in 2010). Following the death of Gilmore by firing squad and the publicity surrounding it, the tide of public opinion turned against firing squads and toward lethal injection, which is thought to be a more humane way to put the condemned to death. Lethal injection has since become the usual method in states which hand down the supreme punishment.
Due to the increased difficulty in obtaining the drugs necessary to perform lethal injections from drug companies reluctant to supply them, other U.S. states have been considering the re-implementation of the firing squad. Wyoming approved a bill which would allow for a firing squad to be used in executions should the necessary drugs for lethal injection be unavailable. Wyoming’s full legislature is expected to consider the bill next year. Tennessee passed a law in May which would reinstate death by electric chair should drugs for lethal injections be unavailable or if the method itself is found to violate the constitution. Tennessee still considers lethal injection its preferred method of carrying out executions. Louisiana legislators have attempted to bring back the electric chair to no avail.
As overseas drug companies continue to withhold the necessary drugs for the lethal injection mixture, U.S. labs have attempted to replace the missing drug with others. Using the new cocktail has resulted in what some call “botched” executions, in addition to an increase in the national outcry against the use of capital punishment.
By Jennifer Pfalz