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Could firing squad make a comeback in Utah, elsewhere?

SALT LAKE CITY — When Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad in 2010 at the Utah State Prison in Draper, more than 59 journalists from news outlets from around the globe descended upon Utah to cover the event.

Reporters from Japan and Great Britain called it “a Wild West way of dispatching people” and referenced John Wayne movies.

But as anti-death penalty pharmaceutical companies in Europe refuse to sell the drugs necessary for lethal injections to prisons in the United States and in the wake of botched lethal injection executions in recent months, the firing squad could be making its return to Utah and other places.

“I’ve had several states actually call (to ask about the firing squad),” Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said. “They asked me not to name them because they don’t want the media circus on it. But they’re in the same boat we are — they can’t get the drugs, either.”

Botched executions involving lethal injections in Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio earlier this year have led Ray to believe that the method could face constitutional challenges as well. For that reason, he is proposing legislation that would bring back the firing squad as the secondary execution method in Utah, should the primary method, lethal injection, be found unconstitutional or unavailable.

“It really won’t do anything,” Ray said. “It’s just the plan B if we need it.”

A law passed in 2004 eliminated death by firing squad in Utah, but those on death row who requested such a death prior to the new law still have the option. Ray said the legislation he is proposing would restore the firing squad as a possible execution method, but eliminate the inmate choice.

“It will be lethal injection, and then, if the drugs are not there, or it is unconstitutional, then it will be firing squad,” Ray explained. “There is no option for the inmates.”

Utah's firing squad comprises five riflemen, all certified law enforcement officers, using 30-30 rifles. Four of the guns are loaded with live ammunition and one is loaded with a blank before the officers shoot in unison.

Ray acknowledged that part of the reason the method was eliminated was due to the extra attention that surrounded it. But he said there is always going to be interest around executions, especially among international media. The firing squad may heighten that interest, but Ray doesn't balk at it as an execution method.

“It is actually the most humane,” he said. “The individual is usually dead before they can even hear the gunshot. It’s four bullets to the heart, so it’s not ‘How long did it take for him to die? Could he breathe? Did he feel it?’”

Wyoming Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, decided to propose the firing squad as Wyoming’s secondary execution method, because he said it is what he would choose if forced to select to among the alternatives to lethal injection.

“It became a matter of personal prejudice and if I was the one that was being executed,” Burns said.

Wyoming’s current backup if lethal injection is unavailable is the gas chamber, which Burns felt was impractical for a number of reasons. For one, the state doesn’t have a gas chamber, and building one — and the possible litigation prompted by a decision to build one — would be expensive.

“It would cost millions of dollars to build one,” Burns said. “And sometimes you have to put your own experience into it and I think the gas chamber would be a horrible way to kill somebody.”

The firing squad is simply “more efficient,” he said. And Wyoming has an example in Utah if it decides to make the firing squad its secondary method.

“I do like the way Utah did it,” Burns said. “Utah has a very good protocol. If we pass this, I would hope the Wyoming Department of Corrections would look to the protocol that Utah uses.”

Even before the botched executions, Burns noticed the difficulty getting lethal injection drugs from companies in the European Union. He proposed a bill to implement the firing squad in Wyoming’s legislative session this past January.

It didn’t pass, but officials from the Wyoming Department of Corrections came forward and spoke about the difficulties states around the nation are facing when it comes to obtaining drugs for lethal injections, and the Wyoming Legislature’s Judiciary Committee decided to look at the issue. Lawmakers have since decided to sponsor the firing squad bill in the upcoming legislative session in January.

Ralph Dellapiana, a public defender and director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said there are a number of states taking a second look at the death penalty with six eliminating the punishment in the past six years. He predicted another six states, including Colorado and Montana, will also put a stop to capital punishment in the next few years.

“People have different reasons,” Dellapiana said. “For some people it’s immoral, and in other places it’s that it’s extremely costly and the appeals take forever and the victims want it to be over with.”

He noted the concerns some have about exonerations of those on death row and the fear of executing the innocent. Couple those with the issues regarding the manner of the executions, and Dellapiana said there’s just no reason to continue with the death penalty.

“It doesn’t matter what your reason is, there are just too many reasons we shouldn’t do it,” he said. “We should join the civilized world instead of joining the ranks of Iran, Pakistan and China.”

When Gardner was executed, Dellapiana said he got calls from journalists around the world who were shocked that the death penalty even existed and found the firing squad “all the more horrific.” As far as he is concerned, though, the manner in which executions are carried out is largely irrelevant.

“I think there’s a lot of costs and problems involved in each of them,” he said.

There are already legal challenges to the death penalty pending that allege the practice amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Dellapiana said there are also First Amendment issues in states where officials are trying to keep execution details, such as which drugs are being used and where they are coming from, from the public and the media.

He believes the challenges will ultimately land in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. And while he doesn’t think the nation's high court will eliminate the death penalty altogether, he does think they will order states to submit their methods and policies to public scrutiny and ensure that they meet all due process standards.

With life without parole as an option, Dellapiana just doesn’t see the point in pursuing the death penalty.

“The more people learn about the problems with the death penalty, they’ll say: ‘Even if I’m not morally opposed to killing people, I have all these other reasons to recognize that it’s bad policy and we shouldn‘t be trying to do it,'” Dellapiana said. “The alternative is faster, cheaper and better for families of victims.”

Ray acknowledged that the current death penalty process in Utah needs to be "refined."

“It takes too long, there are too many appeals in the appeals process and it’s too expensive,” he said. “That’s something we have to take a look at: ‘Here is the cost. Can we trim it down?’ And if not, if it’s worth having. I’m open to that discussion.”

Burns said the the Wyoming Legislature’s Judiciary Committee recently had an extended debate about the death penalty and whether to eliminate it altogether. A proposed bill was even drafted.

“It went down and not by a whole lot,” Burns said, before adding that he likes where Wyoming stands now with just one man on death row. “We have 22 people in prison for life without parole, and any one of those 22 could have been a capital case. We haven’t executed anyone since 1992, so we use it infrequently.”

Still, he believes the death penalty is an important tool in the criminal justice system to be used as needed.

“I’m not a fan of using it more, but I would like to have it there in reserve for those crimes that are so horrible and so heinous that the person doesn’t even deserve life without parole,” Burns said.

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