Bring back firing squads, US judge says after prolonged Arizona execution

While Sen. John McCain called the prolonged Arizona execution 'torture,' a US judge who had granted a stay, later overruled, said if Americans cannot stomach a firing squad, 'then we shouldn't be carrying out executions at all.'

J. David Ake/AP
Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Alex Kozinski poses for a portrait in the lobby of a Washington office building, July 24. Kozinski, an influential federal appeals court judge said that the nation's third lethal injection execution to go awry in six months underscores his call to bring back firing squads.

Anti-capital punishment activists are using the prolonged execution of Joseph Wood in Florence, Ariz., Wednesday as a clarion call to end the death penalty. A federal judge who adjudicated Mr. Wood’s case has emphasized another alternative: bring back the firing squad.

"Eight or ten large-caliber rifle bullets fired at close range can inflict massive damage, causing instant death every time," Alex Kozinski, chief justice of Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote in a decision that would have stayed Wood’s execution by lethal injection if the US Supreme Court hadn’t overridden that ruling.

"If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn't be carrying out executions at all,” Judge Kozinski reiterated Thursday to the Washington Examiner’s Byron York. In his earlier ruling, Kozinski said using drugs to carry out executions is "a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful."

In the last five years, US states have carried out an average of 37 executions per year, down from an average of 71 between 1995 and 2007. About 60 percent of Americans support the death penalty.

Wednesday’s execution – which state officials say was not botched since they claim Wood was out cold and involved in “sonorous … snoring” during the prolonged death – was the fourth at least partly botched execution this year.

Gov. Jan Brewer has vowed an investigation into why Wood audibly gasped more than 600 times in a span of 90 minutes before he died. The whole procedure took 1 hour and 57 minutes.

In April, an Oklahoma death row inmate woke up, thrashed and talked during his execution, forcing prison officials to draw a curtain on witnesses and abort the procedure. He died anyway.

As European manufacturers have shied away from supplying key drugs used in lethal injection cocktails, US death penalty states have had to adjust their formulas. The problem is that the FDA has refused to test their efficacy, and the broader medical establishment has shown no interest in wanting to oversee the administration of death.

For some, the FDA’s unwillingness to check execution compounds points to the core of the problem of medicalized executions, where critics argue there’s a conceit that death is painless and peaceful.

For the FDA, “What is safety in this case?” asks Rebecca Dresser, a bioethics expert at Washington University in St. Louis. “It means that it causes a quick and painless death. But [the FDA] doesn’t want to get into the business of reviewing that. They’ve been permitted to take that position so far.”

A lot of Americans were certainly shocked by news of Wood’s ordeal. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who was held in a Viet Cong prison camp during the Vietnam War, called the execution “torture” in an interview with Politico.

Not everyone agreed. Recalling the pain of losing two family members to Wood’s violent 1989 rampage, Jeanne Brown told reporters, “You don’t know what excruciating is.”

To be sure, such comments suggest growing rhetoric in the US to address the inherent problems with the death penalty, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1976, and more specifically how it’s administered.

And while most death penalty states now utilize lethal injection, other methods aren’t necessarily lost traditions.

Utah executed a man named Ronnie Lee Gardner by firing squad in 2010. Even though the firing squad was banned by law in 2004, the condemned man’s sentence was grandfathered.

Other methods are rarely seen but still legal: Eight states still allow the electric chair, three allow the gas chamber, and another three can still legally hang those convicted to die. In many states with multiple methods, the inmates choose the method by which they will die.

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