A legislative committee wants to bring back the firing squad as one of the primary methods for executing condemned criminals in Utah.
The Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on Wednesday endorsed legislation that makes firing squads the method for carrying out executions if the drugs needed for lethal injections are not available to the state — and they currently are not.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said Utah does not now have the "cocktail" of drugs needed to carry out executions by lethal injection and needs to be prepared to do so with a firing squad.
"The European company that makes this [drug cocktail] is refusing to sell to the United States because they’re opposed to the death penalty," said Ray, who called the firing squad armed with rifles "absolutely one of the most humane ways to execute someone because it’s so quick and, quite honestly, one of the most painless ways. I’m sure there’s some initial pain to it," he said, "but you don’t see the struggling and the trying to breathe you see on any type of lethal injection. Even on the ones that are the lethal drug cocktail, you still see the gurgling and the fighting to breathe."
The bill was prompted in part by a "botched" execution in Oklahoma where condemned murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett writhed and gasped after he was injected and called out, "Oh, man," according to news reports quoting witnesses. Lockett died of a heart attack about a half hour after getting lethal doses of drugs, prison officials said, sparking a national debate over the drugs used to carry out executions and the death penalty itself.
Under the bill headed for the 2015 Utah Legislative General Session in January, a court hearing would be held at a minimum of 30 days before a scheduled execution at which a judge would determine if a legal drug combination was available for the execution. If not, the firing squad would become the method of execution.
In recent decades, Utah gave death row inmates the choice of execution by lethal injection or a firing squad. But in 2004, the Legislature made lethal injection the primary method of execution, with a firing squad available for inmates who previously had the right to chose their method of execution or if a court declared lethal injection unconstitutional.
Jean Hill, the government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said the diocese opposed the bill because of its longstanding opposition to capital punishment.
"We don’t believe there is a humane way to execute anyone," Hill said. "And the idea that we put five people behind a wall to shoot someone who is immobilized and unarmed is not humane."
The committee voted 9-2 to endorse the legislation, with Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Salt Lake, and Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, against the endorsement.
"I don’t see where this bill is needed," said Wheatley. "We’re not correcting any problem. … It’s not solving anything."
The Utah prison inmate who may be the closest to execution is Douglas Carter, convicted of killing Eva Olesen during a 1985 robbery at her Provo home. But Deputy Utah Attorney General Tom Brunker said Carter still has legal actions pending in state and federal courts.
The last person executed by a firing squad in Utah was Ronnie Lee Gardner on June 18, 2010. Gardner was sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of attorney Michael Burdell during an attempt to escape while Gardner was in the Salt Lake City courthouse for a hearing stemming from another murder the year before.
Gardner chose a firing squad when a 3rd District Court judge signed a death warrant in 2010. His execution brought an intense focus to Utah and its capital punishment laws.
The Jan. 17, 1977, execution by firing squad of Gary Gilmore also brought international attention to Utah when he became the first person executed in the United States in 10 years after a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions upheld the death penalty after earlier decisions had struck down previous laws.
Probably the most famous execution by firing squad in Utah was that of Joe Hill, the Swedish immigrant born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, who was known for songs he composed on behalf of the Industrial Workers of the World, a militant labor union of that era.