Ronnie Lee Gardner: Is Utah firing squad a more humane execution?

Ronnie Lee Gardner, who is scheduled to be executed by firing squad in Utah just past midnight local time Friday, raises questions about the relative humaneness of methods of execution.

Trent Nelson/AP/Pool
Ronnie Lee Gardner raises his restrained hand as he is sworn in before speaking at his commutation hearing at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah, on June 10. Next to him is his attorney Andrew Parnes. Convicted of two murders, Mr. Gardner faces execution by firing squad at 12:05 a.m. Friday.

Ronnie Lee Gardner is scheduled to be executed at 12:05 a.m. Friday in the Utah State Prison, spotlighting a long list of sensitive issues about the death penalty, ranging from cost to crime deterrence to the relative humaneness of specific methods, such as firing squad.

Mr. Gardner, convicted of two murders – one during a courthouse escape attempt in 1985 – had been selected to die by lethal injection. But in an April court hearing he said, “I would like the firing squad, please.”

There is some evidence that firing squad is less "barbaric" than lethal injection, says John Holdridge, director of the Capital Punishment Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which campaigns against the death penalty.

A Utah inmate who in 1938 agreed to be shot to death while hooked up to an electrocardiogram showed complete heart death within one minute of the firing squad's shots. By contrast, research shows that a lethal injection – if done properly – takes about nine minutes to kill an inmate.

Support for death penalty dropping

Polls show public support of the death penalty has been dropping steadily since the 1990s, partly because of the number of convictions shown to be wrong by The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.

Mr. Holdridge says the number of proven, wrongful executions has now reached 138. And Cleveland-based criminal defense attorney Elizabeth Kelley says that 250 exonerations of death-row defendants in recent years, coupled with medical procedural TV shows such as CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” have made the public more sophisticated about the fallibility of scientific evidence.

Holdridge says the Gardner execution by firing squad will be more dramatic and argues that it will raise more public opposition to the death penalty itself than would a lethal injection, which makes the death appear more humane and clinical.

“The Gardner execution really brings to the spotlight what we are doing – exterminating a human life in a deliberate, premeditated fashion,” Holdridge says. He notes that one of the five rifles is loaded with a blank round so that each shooter is uncertain about whether or not he fired a fatal shot.

But is it also a deterrent? Dr. Allison Cotton, associate professor of criminology at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, says shooting a convict sends a mixed message.

“Shooting a person because he shot a person to death – to deter others from shooting people – is faulty reasoning,” says Cotton.

Leaving aside the personal motivations for choosing to be shot, which some have suggested might be for political reasons, Cotton says the pain factor is unknowable. Lethal injection takes time, and is achieved in three stages, Cotton points out. The first injection makes the person unconscious. A second injection paralyzes muscles so they can’t move. And a third stops the heart.

“There is no way of knowing how much pain this causes because the person is unconscious,” she says.

Death-penalty costs

As to cost, Cotton says the average execution – whatever method – costs $2.3 million dollars, compared to $500,000 to $700,000 for life in prison without parole.

In 2006, the United States Supreme Court ruled that death-row inmates in the United States could challenge the constitutionality of states' lethal injection procedures through a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Since then, numerous death-row inmates have brought such challenges in the lower courts, claiming that lethal injection as currently practiced violates the ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" found in the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution.

Lower courts evaluating these challenges have reached opposing conclusions.

For example, courts have found that lethal injection as practiced in California, Florida, and Tennessee is unconstitutional while other courts have found that lethal injection as practiced in Missouri, Arizona, and Oklahoma is constitutionally acceptable.

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