The Death Penalty Is in Decline, So Why Is Utah Trying to Resurrect Firing Squads?

The state joins Oklahoma as the only other place in America to still use the antiquated execution method.

The execution chamber at Utah State Prison after Ronnie Lee Gardner was put to death by a firing squad on June 18, 2010. (Photo: Trent Nelson/Reuters)

Feb 18, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Christopher Carbone is a New York writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and Slate.

In 2014, the U.S. executed the lowest number of people in two decades. Recent cases of botched executions have brought new scrutiny and skepticism to the death penalty.

Yet last week, Utah’s House of Representatives passed a measure to resurrect the firing squad. The bill is headed to the state Senate.

Utah’s proposal comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on an Oklahoma death penalty case. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday told a Washington forum: “It is one thing to put somebody in jail for an extended period of time, have some new test that you can do, and determine that person was, in fact, innocent. There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed—and that is, from my perspective, the ultimate nightmare.” On Friday, Pennsylvania’s governor imposed a moratorium on executions, and Montana’s legislature is considering a measure to abolish the death penalty. So it’s understandable that Utah’s House of Representatives voted carefully on this issue.

Part of the story of Utah’s firing squad push rests with the bill’s chief sponsor, Paul Ray, a Republican who sits on the state legislature’s law enforcement and criminal justice committee. Ray has argued that death by firing squad is faster and more humane than lethal injection. His argument is also financial. During one debate on the legislative floor, Ray said, “We are facing a situation where we are going to have to go to court, and it’s going to cost millions of dollars for the state of Utah to defend what we’re doing.”

The financial argument is debatable. One 2011 study found that California taxpayers would save about $170 million a year if all the state’s death row inmates had their sentences commuted to life without parole.

During some firing squad executions, marksmen bearing rifles aim to shoot a cloth placed over a prisoner’s heart. Not all firing squad executions are foolproof. Take the case of Wallace Wilkerson, convicted of murder in Utah in the late 1800s and sentenced to death. Wilkerson chose death by firing squad rather than hanging or decapitation, according to media accounts. On execution day, Wilkerson sat in a chair in the jail yard unbound to the chair. Wilkerson apparently stiffened, and seconds later, the squad opened fire. Wilkerson was shot in his torso and arm, but he wasn’t pronounced dead for 27 minutes.

A 2012 study examined 9,000 U.S. executions that took place in the 20th century and found that 270 of them were bungled in some way. Botched executions have recently made headlines. In April, Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack a full 43 minutes after prison officials in Oklahoma administered the lethal injection.

According to Amnesty International, more than two-thirds of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. But 54 countries still allow capital punishment by shooting or firing squad. That puts Utah in the same category as countries such as North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran.

Wyoming, which authorizes lethal gas only if lethal injection is found unconstitutional, is also considering a bill that would make firing squads an alternative method of execution. Utah was the first state to resume executions just after the Supreme Court lifted its moratorium on capital punishment in 1976. Since then, only two people in the U.S. have been executed by firing squad, and both cases were in Utah. In 2004, a bill was passed in Utah to make lethal injection the primary method of execution.­

“This is not just a conversation about different ways of the state putting people to death,” said Utah House Minority Leader Brian King on the House floor. King, a Democrat who voted against the firing squad bill, added, “It’s a question about moral and fiscal responsibility and whether the state of Utah chooses, or not, to be a moral and fiscal leader on such a controversial topic.”

According to the Utah Department of Corrections, eight people sit on Utah’s death row, but the state does not have any lethal injection drugs on hand. Jean Hill of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City told The Salt Lake City Tribune that the state is probably three to four years away from its next execution. Where Utah decides to stand—with a growing number of states and countries rejecting capital punishment or with a more archaic practice from its past—remains to be seen.