Utah is talking about bringing back the firing squad:

The proposal from Republican Rep. Paul Ray of Clearfield would call for a firing squad if the state cannot obtain the lethal injection drugs 30 days before the scheduled execution.

Utah dropped firing squads out of concern about the media attention, but Ray said it’s the most humane way to execute someone because the inmate dies instantly.

“We have to have an option,” Ray told reporters Wednesday. “If we go hanging, if we go to the guillotine, or we go to the firing squad, electric chair, you’re still going to have the same circus atmosphere behind it. So is it really going to matter?”

Firing squads are technically still an option for those on death row, if they were sentenced to die before 2004. I’m not sure how many condemned are left where that qualifies. The last time it was used was, according to the article, 2010.

Setting aside the limitations on lethal injection that are precipitating this proposal, Utah has a special relationship with the firing squad due to the Mormon belief in blood atonement, which was one of the stumbling blocks to getting rid of it:

The term refers to an arcane Mormon belief that a murderer must shed his own blood–literally–to be forgiven by God. Since Mormon pioneers first arrived in 1847, most formal executions (until recent decades) have been by firing squad, which is a lot bloodier than hanging or lethal injection.

When state Rep. Sheryl Allen began proposing eliminating the firing-squad option in the late 1990s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself did not object. Yet talk of blood atonement percolated “in quiet, backroom discussions,” she recalled.

“A couple of people in prominent positions said to me, ‘We’ve got to have blood atonement.'”

I don’t have a particularly negative view of firing squads compared to other forms of capital punishment, provided that the shooters can aim. Particularly if it’s just an option, and if there is a religious rationale for the condemned. I’m against the death penalty writ large, excluding hypothetical cases, but beyond that I actually think the more options that the condemned has, the better.

This, of course, relates to the most recent front that opponents of the death penalty have been fighting, which is by denying states the chemicals needed for lethal injection. Specifically, they were able to cut states off from sodium thiopental. Gabriel Rossman argued that those trying to prevent access to these chemicals bear some of the responsibility for the recent spate of botched executions:

Over the last months there has been a great deal of outrage over botched executions in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona in which the executions did not go as planned and in at least one of the three cases the condemned suffered prolonged excruciating pain. Many stories about these executions explained that states had been experimenting with new formulas because anti-death penalty activists and governments had systematically cut off their supplies of sodium thiopental — the old and much more reliable lethal injection chemical. However this was all in terms of the historical chain of events and I saw basically nobody saying that the anti-death-penalty activists were morally at fault for preventing a well-established and relatively effective means of execution or that the Lockett, McGuire, and Wood executions demonstrate the need to restore access to sodium thiopental. Rather the ubiquitous assumption was that once sodium thiopental was cut off that the states of Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona should have said “wow, looks like you got us into a checkmate, guess we’ll just commute every sentence on death row even though our electorates favor capital punishment.”

When I linked to it, Alan Scott argued that this moral calculus is faulty:

And to say that an entity is to blame for a grisly death because they chose not to supply the killer with a more humane weapon is really, really gross.

I wouldn’t want a product I produce used in the death penalty. But it would be a part of my own moral calculations that the moral purity of refusing to participate comes at the cost of potentially making the executions less humane. Since that’s a foreseeable consequence of my actions, I don’t think I can turn around and wash my hands of it when less humane executions are performed. In other words, if I’m going to try to use my chemical as leverage to end the death penalty – and that is something that would interest me – I had better make sure it will work.

Will it? As Utah demonstrates, if you want someone dead, you can kill them dead. The calculus of those seeking to deny means of execution are hoping that there are lengths to which states won’t go. That’s probably right in some states, though Texas will keep executing by whatever means they can. If you view the means of death as actually unimportant, a saved life in a borderline state is worth a botched execution in Oklahoma.

As public opinion is less firmly in favor of the death penalty, it may be a calculus that ultimately works in all but the most execution-happy states. There is likely a group of states that doesn’t have the energy or momentum to abolish the death penalty, but neither do they have the energy or momentum to shoot people dead or even re-draft laws. Intuitively, I’m not a fan of “heightening the contradictions”, as Rossman puts it. But if it works, it works.


Category: Courthouse

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

5 Responses to Shot To Death in Utah

  1. Abel Keogh says:

    Setting aside the limitations on lethal injection that are precipitating this proposal, Utah has a special relationship with the firing squad due to the Mormon belief in blood atonement, which was one of the stumbling blocks to getting rid of it:”

    As an orthodox Mormon, I roll my eyes every time I read something like this. The doctrine of blood atonement isn’t something that’s been taught in at least 120 years. Maybe longer. It’s also been officially repudiated by the LDS Church. The blood atonement doctrine may have had something to do with Utah using the firing squad in it’s early days, but to say that they’re bringing it back because of (or in part) of the blood atonement doctrine strikes me as sensationalist.

    • trumwill says:

      The folks who got rid of the firing squad said that it was a stumbling block on their first attempt (though not so big a stumbling block to stop them, ultimately). I’ll take your word that the contemporary effect is overstated, though.

      Seems likely to me that there is a relationship, though, between old (if no longer active) beliefs and that Utah and Idaho are two of the three states to allow firing squads in recent times. I could definitely see that as a rather indirect relationship, though, having more to do with (civil) custom that came from old beliefs, rather than any contemporary theology.

  2. Alan Scott says:

    What you’re taking as a given, though, and I don’t, is the idea that someone who morally objects to the death penalty will find a lethal injection to be a better alternative than a firing squad.

    I’m not going to quibble at margins. I think the death penalty is inappropriate however it’s administered, and absent methods that specifically result in slow or torturous deaths, one form of execution is pretty much like another, in my book.

    Hell, from a theater-of-politics standpoint, I’d prefer the firing squad. The death penalty is an ugly business from a moral standpoint–and I think more people would understand that if the state switched back to methods that were ugly business from a visual standpoint as well.

    What we’d come to is a method of death that seemed nice–death as a medicine, administered by doctors and nurses. It’s no wonder that pharmaceutical companies, in the business of improving health and saving lives, want no part in the administration of death to the unwilling. It’s likewise no wonder that doctors and nurses refuse to administer those drugs.

    I stand by my statement that it’s gross to blame doctors, nurses, and makers of medicine when an untrained person causes suffering by administering an inappropriate drug to an inmate.

    On the other hand, I don’t think the makers of infantry rifles and ammunition can make the same sort of claim. Those who create medicine can rightly complain about using medicine to kill as a perversion of their art. Those who create firearms can’t make a similar argument, nor are they inclined to.

    • trumwill says:

      I don’t take that as a given at all, and as someone that does oppose the death penalty more or less agree with the sentiment you provide. But getting states to switch to the firing squad isn’t the goal. And firing squads aren’t the problem. Botched injections are.

      The drug-makers are in a moral quandary. They have the ability to make death penalty less inhumane, and choose not to do it. Though I recognize the moral quandary, I can only really justify it if it produces positive results. It produces negative ones, my hands aren’t clean. (There is a plotline in TV shows that’s related. If you don’t kill them cleanly, I’m going to kill them ugly. I tend to lean towards doing it yourself, if it spares the other person agony, even if you don’t want them to die at all.)

      But Rossman and I are actually looking less at the drugmakers, and more at the people who encouraged them to do what they did. For all I know, the drugmakers only did what they did due to public pressure. Or otherwise, they have to deal with their conscience in a more direct way than the advocates. I’m looking more at the advocates, who made denying them the chemicals they use a part of their struggle against the death penalty. They got what they wanted. Is this what they want?

      (And maybe it is, as I say in the last paragraph of the OP.)

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