Utah has legalized execution by firing squad when drugs to carry out lethal injections are not available.
Gary Herbert, governor of the state of nearly 3 million people, signed the bill into law on March 23, making Utah the only state in the union to use firing squads for executions.
Drugs used for lethal injections have become scarce in recent years, as many manufacturers in Europe cut off supplies in protest over the use of the death penalty in the United States. This has driven many states to start exploring other means of ending the lives of those prisoners sentenced to death. The Utah prison system does not currently have any supplies of the lethal drugs on hand, prompting the move.
"We prefer to use our primary method of lethal injection when such a sentence is issued. However, when a jury makes the decision and a judge signs a death warrant, enforcing that lawful decision is the obligation of the executive branch," Marty Carpenter, spokesman for the governor's office, said.
Utah abandoned the use of firing squads more than 10 years ago. The state used to allow convicts to select a firing squad as their method of execution, but the practice ended following intense public ridicule. However, several prisoners convicted prior to 2004 when the state repealed the law allowing use of firing squads are still grandfathered in, allowing them to stand before a firing squad on their last day if they chose that option.
Opponents of capital punishment have rallied against the decision, saying the practice makes Utah look backward and primitive in the eyes of outsiders. The governor was uncertain whether he would sign the bill until the week before adopting the law.
"The debate is really more than just the firing squad. It's should we have capital punishment or not? It's not our preference, but we need to have a fallback," Herbert said.
Oklahoma is considering the use of gas chambers when lethal injection drugs are not available, and Tennessee recently brought back the electric chair as an option for executions. Both states are facing legal challenges from plaintiffs who say those methods constitute cruel and unusual punishment. In Washington state, condemned prisoners may select hanging as their method of death. Currently, 34 states permit the death penalty. Three people have been executed by firing squad in Utah since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty nationally.
Ronnie Lee Gardner was the last person in Utah to be executed by firing squad, in 2010. He was convicted of killing a bartender and later shot a lawyer to death and wounded a bailiff during a 1985 courthouse escape attempt. The Beehive State is not expected to execute another prisoner for several more years.
Photo: Marion Doss | Flickr