Utah firing squad decision: Could it actually make death penalty more humane?

Firing squads, despite the optics, may actually be less barbaric than other methods, according to those who have looked at the data. Some critics say it also could expose what some call hypocrisy in Americans' attitudes toward the death penalty.

Trent Nelson/AP Photo/File
This June 18, 2010, file photo shows the firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. Utah's Gov. Gary Herbert will not say if he'll sign a bill to bring back the firing squad but does say the method would give Utah a backup execution method.

Utah may not have executed its last death row inmate by firing squad after all, given a push by the Western state’s lawmakers on Tuesday to reinstate the dramatic manner of execution that was last used to kill Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010.

Up to that point, Utah was the last state where a condemned inmate could choose firing squad over lethal injection, which Mr. Gardner did, thus by personal choice bypassing Utah’s 2004 firing squad ban.

But if firing squads have become too gory for modern American sensibilities, lethal injections, it's now obvious, can be just as, perhaps even more, disturbing when they go wrong.

Last year, the US saw several botched executions where problems in the chamber led to situations where the condemned may have suffered in their last, prolonged moments. In the wake of these flawed executions, the Supreme Court has agreed to examine whether one of the drugs used violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Trouble finding proven drugs is now forcing decisions for a growing number of states like Georgia, which just put a brake on its execution schedule after finding its stash of lethal injection drugs had turned cloudy. The practical upshot: While some states, like Georgia and Ohio, have declared temporary moratoriums on executions, others are looking again at methods such as the electric chair, firing squad, and hanging.

Some death-penalty experts note that lethal injection and its surface appearance of a clean, quiet death may have done more to assuage Americans’ squeamishness than to force an open debate about the moral and judicial merits of executions, which are, by their nature, acts of violence.

In particular, Utah’s push to bring its firing squad chamber back online is also highlighting a stark notion – that the firing squad, as Slate’s Margot Sanger-Katz has written, “is actually a pretty good way to go.”

“There’s a concession that there’s a problem with lethal injection so states are going back to methods that seemed barbaric at one point but, relative to lethal injection, maybe don’t look as bad anymore,” says Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno, whose work on the constitutionality of execution methods has been cited numerous times by Supreme Court justices.

Given botched executions, including one in Arizona where the condemned man took nearly two hours to die, more states are looking at viable back-ups to lethal injection. Tennessee has reinstated its electric chair, and Arkansas lawmakers have filed a bill to allow firing squads. Oklahoma lawmakers are discussing a plan to use nitrogen gas as the lethal element.

To be sure, death penalty critics say that arguing about the manner of execution is the wrong debate. The real question, they say, is whether the difficulty in obtaining lethal injection drugs and the barbarity of other options should push America toward ending the sanction. That push comes amid evidence around the country, even in conservative death penalty states, that prosecutors and juries are seeking death less often, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Utah “took a giant step backward,” Ralph Dellapiana, director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told the Associated Press, calling firing squads “a relic of a more barbaric past.”

Yet firing squads, despite the optics, may actually be less barbaric than other methods, according to those who have looked at the data. A 1938 electrocardiogram study by Utah’s prison system on a condemned man found that it took less than a minute to achieve “electrical silence” after the firing squad shots rang out. Death by lethal injection takes, on average, nine minutes. The Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on death by firing squad since 1878, when it found that the method was constitutionally permissible in Wilkerson v. Utah.

To be sure, Utah, due to its long connection with Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, has a uniquely sensitive role in execution methods. “The Mormons believed that shedding of blood is a marker of protection of sort of religious redemption, so you had the firing squad and guillotine for that reason – it’s very much a Mormon influence,” Denno says. That doctrine is no longer accepted by the LDS church. 

Utah also has a long, colorful history of executions, where concerns about the firing squad go back to the 19th century. A reporter describing the firing-squad execution of Enoch Davis in 1894 said Mr. Davis "died like a dog" that "whined itself out of existence in a ... deplorable, decency-sickening state ...." (This, as well as an account where it took an executed man 27 minutes to die after the squad missed his heart, would indicate it is also possible to botch an execution by firing squad.)

“There has to be some recognition that no matter what you introduce within a prison system, it’s a prison, a place where [the ultimate sanction] is implemented by people who are not experts, often by people who have no clue what they’re doing,” says Denno. "People say firing squad is so brutal, but, at least as far as we know, it’s probably the most humane, it kills people the quickest, and it’s one we have expertise for."

Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic opines that barbarism also could be an antidote for what some see as hypocrisy in the US over the death penalty – that a “clean” death somehow absolves citizens of the moral responsibility involved in deputizing prison officials to carry out death.

In that vein, he asks, why not bring back the guillotine?

“The guillotine is barbaric … but perhaps that’s a point in its favor if we must kill,” writes Mr. Friedersdorf. “Perhaps support for the death penalty would decline quickly once actual heads started rolling and Americans better grasped the inescapable brutality of killing men who no longer pose any threat.”

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