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Executions by firing squad poised to make comeback in Utah

This June 18, 2010, file photo shows the firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State.
Image Credit: AP/File photo
March 11, 2015 - 2:24 PM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah, the only state in the past 40 years to carry out a death sentence by firing squad, is poised to bring back the Old West-style executions if the state cannot track down drugs used in lethal injections.

The Republican-controlled state Legislature gave final approval to the proposal Tuesday night, with lawmakers billing it as a backup plan as states struggle to find execution drugs amid a nationwide shortage.

If the governor signs the measure, Utah would become the only state to allow executions by firing squad if there is a drug shortage. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert has declined to say if he will approve or veto the bill, a decision that's not expected for a week or so.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Paul Ray of Clearfield, said it would give the state options.

"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," Ray told The Associated Press.

Utah is one of several states to seek out new forms of capital punishment after a botched lethal injection in Oklahoma last year and one in Arizona that took nearly two hours for the condemned man to die.

Legislation to allow firing squads has been introduced in Arkansas this year, while a Wyoming firing-squad measure failed. In Oklahoma, lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow the state to use nitrogen gas to execute inmates.

Ray says a firing squad is a more humane form of execution. He argued that a team of trained marksmen is faster than the drawn-out deaths that have occurred in botched lethal injections.

Opponents say firing squads are a cruel holdover from the state's wild West days and will earn Utah international condemnation.

"I think Utah took a giant step backward," said Ralph Dellapiana, director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He called firing squads "a relic of a more barbaric past."

Dellapiana said the Legislature should be discussing whether, not how, to execute citizens.

Sen. Gene Davis, a Salt Lake City Democrat, voiced the same concern. Davis, the only senator to speak about the bill Tuesday night, said he was voting against it because it "only puts another alternative on the table" instead of doing away with executions altogether.

The state Senate did not debate the idea before passing the bill on an 18-10 vote, with four Republicans joining Democrats in opposition. The measure narrowly passed the House last month.

Anna Brower with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said the legislation would make Utah "look backwards and backwoods." The organization hopes Herbert will not sign the bill, she said.

The governor's spokesman, Marty Carpenter, issued a statement Tuesday acknowledging that the method would give Utah a legitimate backup if execution drugs aren't available.

States have struggled to keep up their drug inventories as European manufacturers refuse to sell the lethal concoctions to U.S. prisons and corrections departments over opposition to the death penalty. Texas' supply will be used up if the state goes forward with two lethal injections in the next two weeks. The Texas deadline is the most imminent, but other states are struggling, too.

States that turn to alternative drugs have faced legal challenges from inmates.

The head of Utah's prison system has said it does not have lethal injection drugs on hand and would have to obtain some if an execution were to be scheduled.

The use of firing squads could be reinstated more than a decade after the conservative state abandoned the practice. Utah lawmakers stopped offering inmates the choice in 2004, saying the method created a media frenzy around murderers and took attention away from victims.

A handful of inmates on death row were sentenced before the law changed and still have the option of going before a firing squad after their appeals are exhausted in a few years.

Utah's last firing-squad execution was in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was put to death by five police officers with .30-caliber Winchester rifles. The state has carried out three executions by firing squad since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

The Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, says it's not a foolproof execution method because the inmate could move or shooters could miss the heart, causing a slower, more painful death.

News from © The Associated Press, 2015
The Associated Press

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