Referring to the practice as “a little bit gruesome,” Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed House Bill 11 into law yesterday which legalizes the use of firing squads to carry out capital punishment sentences when lethal injection drugs are not available.
So Why Is This Happening?
Because drugs traditionally used to conduct lethal injections are becoming less and less reliably available. As a result, states have had to resort to using drugs to carry out executions that were never intended for that purpose and states are having to wing it. Just last year, Oklahoma experienced a pretty horrible botched execution where the man being put to death complained “my body is on fire” and that’s largely believed to be because the first of three drugs administered (the one that sedates the subject) didn’t work as well as drugs traditionally used to administer the death penalty.
So you’re probably wondering why states, Utah in particular, don’t just go back to using tried and true drugs to carry out these sentences. Well of course, that would be the logical thing except the problem is the companies that make these drugs, some in Europe, are subject to European law and European law has banned the sale of these drugs because of objections to the death penalty. There’s also the matter of anti-death penalty protesters like Maya Foa who successfully pressured a Dutch company into stopping sale of their drugs to U.S. corrections facilities.
Is This Bad?
Well, that’s an interesting question. It’s bad in that states are no longer reliably able to procure drugs that result in the most humane death possible for the condemned. However, some believe that lethal injection is more about making the death penalty appear humane to onlookers rather than a concern for the individual actually being killed. Certainly, the appearance of a person simply falling asleep on a table forever is less disturbing than watching someone get shot while wearing a blindfold and tied to a post.
Will firing squads result in more suffering for those condemned by the state to die? Probably not, especially since recent botched attempts at the death penalty have resulted in what could reasonably be called “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Is This Good?
Well, Utah won’t have to worry about sending condemned inmates through a couple rounds of near executions or thirty minute long painful deaths anymore because they don’t have the right drugs. The irony is that anti-death penalty activists have actually inadvertently created more suffering through drug bans and have had only minimal effect on death penalty laws in the U.S. at the state level.
You might be wondering at this point why states like Utah don’t just postpone executions until they’re able to work something out and get the required drugs to carry out traditional lethal injections. Well, that’s possibly what anti-death penalty advocates were hoping for but the law doesn’t work that way. If a judge decrees that a condemned individual is to die on X date then the state is legally bound to do so. Utah just found a different way to do it and the Governor signed it into law. So, in that sense, firing squad reinstatement is a result of anti-death penalty protests running up against state laws.
Well, who knows but if drug shortages continue then someone will get shot by a firing squad at some point. The last person to be shot by a firing squad in the U.S. was a man named Ronnie Lee Gardner and it took place in Utah. Gardner apparently demanded the execution method and threatened to sue the state if they denied him such a death, stating it was in keeping with his “Mormon heritage.”