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Lawmakers review lethal injection

Questions have arisen over constitutionality

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Nationwide challenges to lethal injection as a method of execution have prompted state lawmakers to review Utah's policies on the death penalty.

"Lethal injection is an effort to find a humane way of executing people," Utah Sentencing Commission director Scott Carver said Wednesday.

He briefed the Legislature's Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on Utah's history of the death penalty and issues surrounding lethal injection. A lawmaker requested a study after problems developed during a Florida man's execution by lethal injection.

Questions have emerged about whether the execution method violates a constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, or if the drug cocktail administered is too painful.

"The methods and the process for lethal injection in Utah have been very efficient and effective," Carver said. "We have not had any problems. The substances have worked extremely well and very quickly."

Utah became the first state to execute an inmate after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, when Gary Gilmore was put to death in 1977. Death by firing squad was eliminated as an option in 2004. Under Utah law, the firing squad remains a fallback option should lethal injection be ruled by the courts to be unconstitutional.

Nine men are on Utah's death row. Four who were convicted before the law was changed are still eligible to die by firing squad.

"The Utah Department of Corrections has an extremely detailed, written manual on how to conduct an execution," Carver said. "It was developed after the Gilmore execution."

That manual may keep Utah out of legal trouble. Some states facing execution challenges over the method of lethal injection have not developed such policies, said Scott Reed, the criminal division chief for the Utah Attorney General's Office.

"If such a challenge comes up, our procedures are sufficient. Our methods are sufficient," he said.

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com