Utah is one step closer to reinstating firing squads for state executions

Utah's House of Representatives approved bringing back firing squads to carry out state executions on Friday, leaving the legislation in the hands of the GOP-controlled Senate.

With a 39-34 vote, House Bill 0011 passed: "If substances are not available to carry out the death penalty by lethal injection on the date specified by warrant, the death penalty shall be carried out by firing squad." If Utah is unable to obtain the drugs 30 days prior to an execution, a firing squad will be the primary alternative.

European drug manufacturers that provide the three-drug combination for lethal injections have refused to sell it to prisons and correction departments out of opposition to the death penalty, Rep. Paul Ray, the bill's chief sponsor, told The Salt Lake Tribune. He added that a firing squad is "absolutely one of the most humane ways to execute someone because it's so quick and, quite honestly, one of the most painless ways."

But critics such as the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center say a firing squad is not a guaranteed pain-free method. If the gunmen misses the target on the heart, a slower and more painful death could result. The Associated Press reported that in 1879, a firing squad missed Wallace Wilkerson's heart. It took him 27 minutes to die.

Other critics say this practice is a relic of Utah's Wild West past, sure to attract international condemnation. Such attention was the reason many lawmakers in 2004 voted to end execution by firing squad, according to the AP.

Utah already has a notorious place in modern history with this form of capital punishment: It was the first state to resume executions when the U.S. reinstated the practice in 1976, using a firing squad on Gary Gilmore in January 1977. And in 2010, Ronnie Lee Gardner was the third and last person in the modern era to be executed in the same way.

Those currently on Utah's death row, though sentenced after this law changed, still have the option of an execution by trained marksmen in a few years after exhausting any appeals.

Other states are also examining alternatives to lethal injection. Wyoming's legislature is working on a bill permitting firing squads, and Oklahoma is considering legislation allowing the use of nitrogen gas to execute inmates.

[Soli Salgado is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org.]

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