Death by firing squad is now an alternative option for capital punishment in Utah, after Gov. Gary Herbert this week signed a bill in response to an ongoing shortage of lethal injection drugs. The new state law makes clear that death row inmates would be killed by firing squad if lethal injection drugs cannot be acquired 30 days before the scheduled execution. The state lawmaker who sponsored the bill has argued that a firing squad is faster and more humane than lethal injections. Opponents, such as the ACLU, believe firing squads are barbaric.
Here, Michael Meltsner, an expert in capital punishment and the Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law at Northeastern, discusses the controversial law.
What is causing the shortage of lethal injection drugs that motivated this bill in Utah?
Pharmaceutical companies, both domestic and international, view their role as furthering human health and wellness. Because they don’t want their drugs associated with capital punishment through lethal injection they have refused to make them available.
Some states have experimented with untested drug protocols with devastating results. University of Colorado professor Michael Radelet has compiled a list of 44 botched executions since 1982. Most of these were a result of improper use of lethal injections.
Why were firing squads abandoned by states that have the death penalty?
Utah and Oklahoma are the only states that currently permit execution by firing squad under certain conditions. While a majority of states still authorize the death penalty, since the 19th century there has been a progressive movement toward “civilizing” the method of execution.
Electrocution was introduced because it was supposedly more humane than hanging. Lethal injection is the latest example of this phenomenon. Though military history shows a different sensibility, few states ever considered using firing squads, generally viewing them as a particularly brutal mode of death.
Because of the number of exonerations and the use of alternative sentences, public support of the death penalty has significantly decreased over the years. Five states have abolished the death penalty in the last decade.
Do you believe death by firing squad should be allowed?
Our system of capital punishment is deeply flawed, unnecessary, arbitrarily and often racially imposed, so for me the method of execution is beside the point. That said, death by firing squad is a throwback, a return of a frontier mentality. Should the bullets miss their mark, death is agonizing.