Utah Governor Approves Firing Squad for Executions

This June 18, 2010, file photo shows the firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. Utah's governor has signed a law that makes his state the only one to allow firing squads for carrying out executions if no lethal injection drugs are available. (AP Photo/Trent Nelson, Pool, File)
This June 18, 2010, file photo shows the firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. Utah’s governor has signed a law that makes his state the only one to allow firing squads for carrying out executions if no lethal injection drugs are available. (AP Photo/Trent Nelson, Pool, File)

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert gave his stamp of approval Monday to a law that brings back the firing squad in the only state that has used it in the past 40 years.

Under the law, firing squads will be a backup method if lethal injection drugs aren’t available.

Utah and other states have struggled to keep up their inventories as European manufacturers opposed to capital punishment refuse to sell the components of lethal injections to U.S. prisons.

A closer look at how Utah’s firing squad works:

WHAT HAPPENS ON EXECUTION DAY?

The prisoner is seated in a chair that is set up in front of a wood panel and in between stacked sandbags that keep the bullets from ricocheting around the room.

A target is pinned over the inmate’s heart. Shooters aim for the chest rather than the head because it’s a bigger target and usually allows for a faster death, said Utah Rep. Paul Ray, who sponsored the proposal.

The prisoner is offered a two-minute window to offer final words. In 1977, Gary Gilmore used that chance to say, “Let’s do this,” before he died.

Five shooters set up about 25 feet from the chair, with their .30-caliber Winchester rifles pointing through slots in a wall. Assuming they hit their target, the heart ruptures and the prisoner dies quickly from blood loss.

In 2010, Ronnie Lee Gardner was declared dead two minutes after he was shot. He was the last person killed by firing squad in the U.S.

WHO ARE THE SHOOTERS?

The gunmen are chosen from a pool of volunteer officers, with priority given to those from the area where the crime happened.

There are always more volunteers than spots on the squad, Ray said recently.

The shooters’ identities are kept anonymous, and one of their rifles is loaded with a blank round so nobody knows which officer killed the inmate.

HAVE FIRING SQUAD EXECUTIONS EVER GONE WRONG?

Not in recent history, said Deborah Denno, a Fordham Law School professor who has long studied executions. Utah’s three firing squad executions in the past four decades went as planned, she said.

But the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, warns that a firing squad is not a foolproof execution method because the inmate could move or the shooters could miss the heart, causing a slower, more painful death.

One such case appears to have happened in 1879, during Utah’s territorial days, when a firing squad missed Wallace Wilkerson’s heart and it took him 27 minutes to die, according to newspaper accounts.

SOURCE: BRADY McCOMBS
The Associated Press

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