Utah Lawmakers Green-Light Return of Executions by Firing Squad

"Those who are executed in this country are casualties of an unequal system of justice," said John Holdridge of the ACLU in response to the state of Utah's 2010 firing squad execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner. (Photo: codepinkphoenix/cc/flickr)

Utah Lawmakers Green-Light Return of Executions by Firing Squad

Critics say 'inhumane' killing method highlights—and escalates—brutality of death penalty.

The state that made headlines last year with its botched execution of Clayton Lockett--who writhed in pain from the lethal injection before eventually dying of a heart attack--is now pursuing the return of an age-old method of killing: the firing squad.

Utah's senators signed a bill Tuesday that would make it the only state in the nation to permit executions by firing squad in cases where lethal drugs are running low.

Specifically, the bill reads, "The method of execution for the defendant is the firing squad if the sentencing court determines the state is unable to lawfully obtain the substance or substances necessary to conduct an execution by lethal intravenous injection 30 or more days prior to the date specified."

Representative Paul Ray (R), who sponsored the legislation, told the Associated Press, "We would love to get the lethal injection worked out so we can continue with that but if not, now we have a backup plan."

The bill moves forward despite opposition from state residents, who have rallied to urge their representatives to reject the firing squad, which they say underscores--and escalates--the brutality of state executions.

"Execution by firing squad sends a very graphic message that belies state leaders' commitment to respecting and protecting all human life," declared Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty in a statement released earlier this year.

It is not yet clear whether the bill will be signed into law.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, has not publicly revealed whether he will approve the bill, which passed Utah's House in February. However, Herbert's office has previously signaled that the measure could provide an important backup plan.

The state senate's OK of the bill follows a series of botched executions around the country following dwindling drug supplies, as European manufacturers refuse to sell lethal cocktails for use in executions, over opposition to the death penalty.

Utah is not alone in pursuing firing squad executions. Arkansas and Wyoming have both introduced similar legislation, and Oklahoma lawmakers are weighing executions by nitrogen gassing.

Utah's last execution by firing squad took place as recently as 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was shot to death--while hooded, strapped to a chair, and wearing a target.

The killing sparked criticisms of the brutality of the death penalty. John Holdridge, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, said at the time, "Gardner's execution was both savage and inhumane and highlights the systemic injustices that plague the entire death penalty system in Utah and the rest of the United States."

"Those who are executed in this country are casualties of an unequal system of justice," Holdridge continued, "in which decisions about who lives and who dies are largely dependent upon the skill of their attorneys, the race of their victim, their socioeconomic status and where the crime took place. Such arbitrary and discriminatory administration of the death penalty is the very definition of a failed system."

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