Lawmakers took a step toward changing the way Utah carries out the death penalty Wednesday, unanimously passing out of committee a bill that would repeal the use of the firing squad.
HB180, calls for lethal injection to be the sole method of execution and thereby remove the right of the condemned to choose the manner execution, Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, told members of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.
"What this bill is not, is a repeal of the death penalty, it's changing the method of a very somber duty that this state has," said Allen, who unsuccessfully ran a similar bill in 1996. "The death penalty is a serious duty of the state; for that reason, I do not know why Utah ever put in statute that (the method of execution) is up to the discretion of the offender."
Allen, who worked with the Utah Sentencing Commission to draft the bill, said her motivation for changing the method of execution is that the firing squad has brought Utah unfavorable international attention, which overshadows the victim and the crime itself. Offenders are also known to choose the firing squad because they know it will attract the media spotlight.
"If (the offenders) choose the firing squad it is one last magnificent manipulation of the system to bring attention to themselves," Allen said.
Thirty-eight states and the federal government have a death penalty, but Utah is alone in giving the offender a choice of method. Idaho and Oklahoma also retain the firing squad as a legal execution method, but only in cases when lethal injection or other methods are not viable. The last person to be executed by firing squad in Utah was John Albert Taylor on Jan. 26 1996, for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Charla King.
Three of the 10 men currently on Utah's death row — Taberone Dave Honi, Troy Kell and Ralph Menzies — have selected to die by firing squad.
Allen's bill is retroactive and would change the method by which all three men could die. It could also set up grounds for appeal, sentencing commission director Ron Gordon said.
HB180 includes the provision that should the courts find the the condemned retains the right of choice, the state could still empanel a firing squad, but only for sentences imposed prior to the effective date of a new law.
But Rep. Mike Morely, R-Spanish Fork wondered if the state needs to retain another legal method of execution for those exceptional cases when the viability of administering lethal injections might be questioned.
"I would hate to be in a situation where we have no option and if for some reason or through some technicality a prisoner would go free due to some strange quirk in the law that there is no other provision for administering capital punishment," Morely said.
Gordon said that the laws of some 25 states offer no legal alternatives to lethal injection, and that the constitutionality of the method has been upheld. Other challenges to lethal injection, such as medical issues, have proven to be without merit, he added.
With several members saying it was "long past time" for such legislation, the committee passed the bill with a 9-0 vote, but not before Rep. Doug Aagard, R-Kaysville, asked if the committee would consider granting the family of a victim the right to choose the method of an offender's death. None were supportive and Gordon said he was unclear if that was even possible under the U.S. Constitution.
Morely said after the meeting that he may offer a floor amendment to the bill that would retain the firing squad as a legal alternative to lethal injection.