Utah firing squads have evoked a bizarre public fascination that typically creates a circus atmosphere and international press coverage painting Utah as barbaric.

"It's turned into a media event," said Sen. Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park and the Senate sponsor of HB180 to do away firing squads as a choice in Utah executions. "It's turned perpetrators into some kind of folk heroes."

The bill passed a preliminary Senate vote Wednesday after spirited debate that evolved more into a discussion of whether or not Utah was part of a greater civilized world. A final vote on the bill is planned today.

Allen said the purpose of the bill was to restore dignity to the state's business, and to "create an environment that is more respectful of the victims' families."

But Senate conservatives are lining up against the bill, challenging the premise of Allen's arguments that Utah's use of the firing squad is an international embarrassment to the state and that it is time, as he said, that Utah "join the global community that has determined this is a barbaric practice."

"A media circus is exactly what we want," countered Sen. Dave Thomas, R-South Ogden, a former federal litigator of death penalty cases. "We want them to know there are severe penalties if you come in here and do these kinds of things. It is one of the purposes of deterrence."

Thomas said the decision as to how a condemned killer dies should rest with the judge, the jury or the victim's family, not with the perpetrator as is currently the case under Utah law.

Currently, three of the 10 men on Utah's death row have selected the firing squad. The last firing squad occurred in 1996 with the execution of John Albert Taylor, which attracted international media attention.

If HB180 passes, lethal injection will be the only option for all future death penalties, but it will not apply retroactively to the three killers who have already selected firing squad. The state would retain the firing squad as an option if lethal injection is found to be unconstitutional or not feasible.

That didn't wash with Thomas, who said that would mean killers will be executed in the most painless way, giving them "the easy way out."

Allen questioned that argument, saying there are no reliable studies that show the type of execution has any impact on deterrence. If it was the case, he said, then an argument could be made that Utah should return to drawing and quartering the condemned or even beheadings.

Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Sandy, reminded her GOP colleagues the issue was not about the merits of the death penalty, but about killers who manipulate their circumstance into media coverage.

"We have the death penalty and we will continue to have the death penalty," she said. "We must make sure we don't make our state a stage" that detracts from the seriousness of the ultimate state-sanctioned penalty.


E-mail: spang@desnews.com