Utah Governor Gary Herbert this week signed a law that reinstates the firing squad as a method for executions when lethal injection drugs are unavailable. The Republican governor's office said lethal injection would remain the primary method for executing inmates on death row, but the move comes at a time when the necessary drugs are in short supply across the US. Under the law, inmates would be killed by a firing squad only if the state cannot acquire lethal injection drugs 30 days prior to the scheduled execution date.
"We regret anyone ever commits the heinous crime of aggravated murder to merit the death penalty and we prefer to use our primary method of lethal injection when such a sentence is issued," Marty Carpenter, a spokesman for Herbert's office, said in a statement Monday. "However, when a jury makes the decision and a judge signs a death warrant, enforcing that lawful decision is the obligation of the executive branch."
Drug shortages push states toward new alternatives
All 34 states that allow for capital punishment use lethal injection as the primary method, though some offer alternatives. Inmates in the state of Washington can request hanging, and prisoners in Florida can choose between lethal injection or electrocution. In Oklahoma, where a gruesome botched execution made headlines last year, firing squads can be used only if electrocution and lethal injection are ever found to be unconstitutional. (The state's Republican lawmakers have also proposed a bill that would allow inmates to be executed in gas chambers.)
Utah's new law makes it the only state to allow for firing squad executions without such legal caveats, according to the Associated Press. A proposal to bring back the firing squad in Wyoming died earlier this month. Other states have begun exploring alternatives as European drug manufacturers have begun restricting supplies of lethal injection drugs under a 2011 EU export embargo.
Utah is the only state to execute inmates by firing squads in the last 40 years; three have been killed by firing squad since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. The state ended the practice in 2004, on the grounds that it attracted too much media attention, though inmates convicted prior to the ban could still choose it. The last inmate to die by firing squad was Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was executed in 2010.
Republican Rep. Paul Ray, the bill's sponsor, has argued that firing squads could offer a quicker, more humane alternative to the botched lethal injections seen in recent years, adding that it was important for the state to have a backup method. But critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have described the method as outdated and barbaric. Even Governor Herbert has acknowledged that killing someone by firing squad "is a little bit gruesome."