Utah May Resume Use of Firing Squad

Concerns over the humaneness of lethal injection spark a return to old-fashioned execution method

By Published on March 15, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Randy Gardner still struggles four years later to talk about seeing his brother’s bullet-ridden body at the mortuary after he was executed.

Ronnie Lee Gardner was the last person to die by a firing squad in Utah — a method state lawmakers voted this week to reinstate, dramatically illustrating the nationwide frustration over bungled executions and shortages of lethal-injection drugs.

Randy Gardner made it clear Wednesday that he could not condone what his brother did — first killing a bartender and later fatally shooting a lawyer in the face and wounding a bailiff during a courthouse escape attempt.

But he said, “The firing squad is very barbaric.”

“When you take somebody and you tie them to a chair, put a hood over their head and you shoot them from 25 feet with four rifles pointed at their heart, that’s pretty barbaric.”

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Paul Ray, sees it differently.

Ray argues that a team of trained marksmen is faster and more humane than the drawn-out deaths involved when lethal injections go awry — or even if they go as planned.

“Your body is paralyzed, you feel everything,” Ray said. “Your body slowly shuts down over a period of minutes based on the drug cocktail that’s given to you. Whereas a firing squad, you reach the death obviously in three to five seconds.”

Some of the victims’ family and friends wanted Gardner’s life spared back in 2010, But relatives of the slain bartender, Melvyn Otterstrom, and bailiff George “Nick” Kirk, pushed for the death sentence to stand.

“Gardner has hurt so many people. He has never shown any compassion for any of his victims, so why does he deserve compassion?” Kirk’s daughter, Tami Stewart, said tearfully at the time. “The agony and toll he placed on my father deserves justice and that it be given.”

Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert has declined to say if he will sign the firing-squad bill, a decision that’s not expected for a week or so.

Utah and several other states are scrambling to modify their laws on the heels of a botched Oklahoma lethal injection last year and one in Arizona in which the condemned man took nearly two hours to die. Meanwhile, Texas executed a Mexican mafia hit man Wednesday night with its second-to-last dosage of drugs.

“States are wondering which way to go, and one way is to send up a warning flag that if you don’t allow us freedom in this lethal-injection area, we’ll do something else,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

States have struggled to keep up their drug inventories as European manufacturers opposed to capital punishment refuse to sell the components of lethal injections to U.S. prisons. The Texas deadline is the most imminent, but other states are struggling, too.

Though Utah’s next execution is probably a few years away, Ray said Wednesday that he wants to settle on a backup method now so authorities are not racing to find a solution if the drug shortage drags on.

He’s hopeful that the proposal will become law, saying he thinks the governor would have already announced his intention to veto it if that were his plan.

Lawmakers stopped offering inmates the choice of firing squad in 2004, saying the method attracted intense media interest and took attention away from victims.

Utah is the only state in the past 40 years to carry out such a death sentence, with three executions by firing squad since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. In 2010, Ronnie Lee Gardner was put to death by five police officers with .30-caliber Winchester rifles in an event that generated international interest and elicited condemnation from many.

Three more death-row inmates who chose firing squad before the law changed would still have the option after their appeals are exhausted. If those executions go forward, prison authorities will choose the gunmen from a pool of volunteer officers, starting with those in the area where the crime happened, Ray said.

“We’ve always had a lot more volunteers than actually had spots,” he said.

Under the new measure, the method would be based solely on the availability of lethal-injection drugs, not an inmate’s choice.

Utah’s next execution probably won’t happen for at least a few years, said Tom Brunker, the state attorney who oversees capital cases.

State laws that allow methods other than lethal injection for executions are not unique to Utah. In Washington, inmates can request a hanging. In New Hampshire, hangings are the default method if lethal injection cannot be given.

Outside the U.S., 54 countries allow executions by gunshot, including China, Vietnam, Uganda and Afghanistan, according to Cornell University Law School’s Death Penalty Worldwide project. Of those, 41 countries allow full firing squads while the others do it differently, such as by a single bullet at close range. Only nine countries are known to have done a firing squad execution in the last decade, the school’s research has found.

Most Utah lawmakers are Mormon, but the firing-squad effort does not seem linked to any teachings or doctrine from the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon church takes a neutral position on capital punishment, and church leaders declined comment Wednesday on the measure.


Associated Press writer Brian Skoloff contributed to this story.


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