The state of Utah just approved killing prisoners via firing squad — a development that’s at once deeply horrifying and, in a strange way, encouraging. It’s horrifying, because rather than recognizing the barbarism of the death penalty, Utah is moving toward even greater barbarity in the service of executions. But, perhaps the brutal image of a group of armed executioners standing before a human being and pulling the trigger will help convince us, once and for all, to finally bring an end to the death penalty.
The death penalty in America is already, rightfully, fraught with plenty of controversy. After all, among the nations of the world, the U.S. is in the distinct minority that still practice capital punishment. According to Amnesty International, in 2013, only 22 countries carried out executions. The list includes Sudan, Iran, Yemen, China, Somalia, and the United States.
And, our executions, arguably inherently inhumane, are getting more so: In 2014, a year in which the United States executed 35 people, at least four of the executions were “botched,” to use New Republic editor Ben Crair's words, making it “the worst year in the history of lethal injection.” In July, Arizona attempted to execute Joseph Rudolph Wood III, but the drugs pumped into his veins took almost two hours to work. A reporter who witnessed the execution said Wood gasped 660 times before he died.
In April, executioners in Oklahoma pushed an IV through a vein in Clayton Lockett’s groin, causing the lethal drugs to accumulate in his tissue rather than his bloodstream. In court documents, the prison warden described the scene as “a bloody mess”; blood squirted onto Lockett’s clothing as he writhed and groaned in pain. The state was apparently going to stop the procedure, but then Lockett had a heart attack and died — but not before a scene that a victim services observer described as “like a horror movie.”
But, rather than abandon the death penalty altogether, the fine leaders of the State of Utah have enacted legislation mandating that, if the drugs for lethal injection cannot be obtained — or, say, if the federal government soon bans such drugs after the rash of botched executions — Utah will now just shoot people. In the face of such a shortage, death by bullet is being presented as an option to inmates there. “We are completely out of the drugs,” Rep. Paul Ray, the Republican legislator who sponsored the law, told the Los Angeles Times. Lethal injection remains the state's default execution method, but three of the eight inmates currently on Utah’s death row have reportedly opted for the firing squad.
Even if you don’t object to firing squads specifically, there’s a compelling reason to stop capital punishment altogether: We often kill innocent people. Utah’s move to expand its death penalty methods comes just a few weeks after Glenn Ford, a man sentenced to death for first-degree murder in Louisiana in 1984, was exonerated and released from prison after 30 years. Ford joined a list of now 151 people who have been proven innocent and freed from death row since 1973 — 151 people who otherwise would have been killed.
In the wake of Ford’s release, attorney Marty Stroud wrote a lengthy apology for his role as the lead prosecutor in the murder trial. Stroud decried the criminal justice system’s knee-jerk enthusiasm for prosecution and conviction, even in the face of innocence. He also decried the death penalty: “No one should be given the ability to impose a sentence of death in any criminal proceeding. We are simply incapable of devising a system that can fairly and impartially impose a sentence of death because we are all fallible human beings.”
In fact, every three days in America someone is exonerated after having been wrongfully convicted and sent to prison or death row. Since Black defendants are significantly more likely to be subject to the death penalty and sentenced to die — especially when the alleged victim is white — than white defendants on trial for similar crimes, there's a discriminatory element to these deaths, also.
“The clear reality is that the death penalty is an anathema to any society that purports to call itself civilized,” Stroud wrote. “It is an abomination that continues to scar the fibers of this society and it will continue to do so until this barbaric penalty is outlawed. Until then, we will live in a land that condones state-assisted revenge, and that is not justice in any form or fashion.”
Utah previously banned executions by firing squad in 2004, but death row inmates sentenced before then could still request the method. The state last executed someone by firing squad in 2010. In 1977, Utah was also the first state to execute someone after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. That execution was also by firing squad. The process then, which presumably will be duplicated now, entailed literally pinning a target on the chest of the condemned and positioning five sharpshooters behind a wall about 25 feet away. One of the shooters would fire a blank so that none of the shooters knew who actually deployed the lethal round. It’s a fascinating series of efforts to insulate the shooters, and by extension the state, from confronting the obvious heinousness of this act.
But, it may be good for the American people to finally confront what the death penalty really is — a way for an often biased and definitely flawed government body to end a human’s life. It is brutal and violent and, well, “like a horror movie.”
Utah Rep. Paul Ray defended his new legislation by quipping in that L.A. Times interview, “We could argue all day about what is more humane.” And, he has a point: Is it more “humane” to execute someone by injection than by bullet? Is that even the right question to be asking? It's clear that the most humane option by far is to stop executions altogether.