Death by Firing Squad Under the Gun

Utah faces hard choices that revolve around religion and execution methods

FOR John Albert Taylor, the debate swirling around the way he has chosen to be executed could end tonight.

But for Utah, the state in which he may be killed, the controversy is just beginning.

The execution by firing squad of Mr. Taylor, scheduled to take place shortly after midnight tonight, raises profound legal and ethical questions about how society disposes of those it deems unworthy to live. Are lethal injections more or less ''humane'' than other means, for example?

And in Utah - a state that is pushing a ''new West'' image of progressive politics, high-tech economy, and world-class winter sports - it's a reminder of ''old West'' roots and the fact that the state was settled by Mormons, who have a unique theology involving the concept of ''blood atonement.''

Death choice

Taylor was convicted of the 1988 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl, charges that he denies. Under Utah law, those condemned to die may choose the firing squad or lethal injection. (Until 1980, the choices were between hanging and firing squad.) In only one other state - Idaho - is execution by firing squad still an option.

''It's not a big issue in this state,'' says L. Kay Gillespie, professor of criminology and sociology at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. ''The firing squad is, to a large extent, our way of doing things.'' Of the 48 executions since Utah gained statehood a century ago, 39 have been by firing squad.

But others are fighting the practice, seen by many as abhorrent. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Roman Catholic Church, and Amnesty International are protesting the Utah case.

''There's been a lot of botched executions with firing squads, and when people think about it or are confronted with it they find it much more distasteful,'' says spokesman Bill Breedlove of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, an advocacy group based in Washington.

Even in Utah, which is generally conservative politically, attitudes may be changing. A proposal in the state legislature (which Gov. Michael Leavitt has said he would sign) would ban the practice.

''It's an image question, and with the Olympics coming politicians are very concerned about that,'' says Professor Gillespie.

While early Mormon leaders may have talked of the need for ''blood atonement,'' or the redemption of sins through the spilling of blood, for heinous crimes, church leaders in recent years have tried to make clear that this is not one of the denomination's official beliefs.

When Arthur Bishop (a Mormon condemned to die in 1988) asked if he had an obligation to request death by firing squad, church officials told him, ''no.'' Mr. Gillespie, also Mormon, has gotten the same response to his official inquiries.

''I'm trying to find out if it's something I should believe in,'' the criminologist says.

Still, the concept apparently remains valid to many in Utah, where the population is two-thirds Mormon.

''I teach death-penalty classes on campus and ask students what their rationale is for capital punishment,'' Gillespie says. ''Many of them do say that the murderer must pay for his sin by having his own blood shed.''

Brutal means?

Experts differ over whether one means of execution causes more physical and emotional trauma than another. Lethal injection is designed to make the prisoner ''go to sleep'' with little physical distress. But some studies show that electrocution, hanging, and bullets produce death quicker.

''The bottom line is, one method of execution is just as brutal and as barbaric as the next,'' says Mr. Breedlove of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

In Utah, condemned criminals are strapped in a chair 45 feet away from five anonymous law enforcement officers standing behind a screen and armed with .30-caliber rifles. The weapon of one of the executioners - no one knows who - has a blank cartridge. This is done so that no officer will know for sure whether or not he killed the convict.

In the 20 years since the US Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976, there have been 314 executions in this country - a number that has soared in recent years. There were 31 deaths by execution in 1994 and 56 in 1995.

Opponents of capital punishment worry that the more-conservative US Congress may accelerate this trend. There have been efforts to limit habeas corpus review in federal cases, and lawmakers have cut funding for a federal program that provides legal aid to those appealing their death sentences.

Noting that five executions were scheduled for this week alone around the country, Breedlove says, ''This year we could hit 100.'' Today, there are 3,046 men and women on death row in the US.

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