Death had its way at the Utah State Capitol on Friday when the House of Representatives narrowly voted to reinstate the firing squad as a preferred method to kill Utah’s prisoners.
In 2004, Utah lawmakers took death by firing squad off the table, moving in line with other states that adopted lethal injection as a primary form of killing.
But a botched execution in 2014 in Oklahoma in which a convicted murderer and rapist took more than 40 minutes to die after receiving an inefficient chemical cocktail injection reignited the debate around the best way for states to kill.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, broached the idea of reinstating the firing squad during the interim legislative session. His bill made it out of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Feb. 4 on a 5-4 vote. And on Friday, the bill, which would reinstate the firing squad in the event that a humane form of lethal injection isn’t available, received 39 votes in favor and 34 votes against. It will now move to the senate.
For a time on the house floor, the vote was deadlocked at 35-to-35. But House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, froze the vote and demanded that someone track down Rep. Michael Kennedy, R-Alpine, who for unknown reasons wasn’t present on the floor. Kennedy arrived to cast his vote in favor of Ray’s House Bill 11
, and at least one house member appeared to change a vote from no to yes.
In 2010, Utah executed Ronnie Lee Gardner with a firing squad, making it the last state to kill a prisoner in this manner. Oklahoma is the only other state that permits death by firing squad.
On Friday, Ray told his colleagues that it only takes three to five seconds for a person to die after being hit with a firing squad’s bullets.
“It’s a quick bleed-out that happens,” he said.
Many of the arguments against Ray’s bill hinged not on the moral implications of state-sponsored killing, but rather on the sour image is creates for the state of Utah.
Whenever the state moves to execute a prisoner via firing squad, it unleashes a fierce debate across the country and world about the death penalty. Much of this coverage casts Utah in an unflattering light.
Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, said resurrecting death by firing squad will create the same kind of negative perceptions toward Utah as its filthy air, which at some times is among the foulest in the nation.
Handy continued, saying his father witnessed many executions by firing squad and some of them did not go off smoothly. Sometimes, he said, the shooters didn’t follow through, forcing the prisoner to be propped up and shot at a second time.
Anna Brower, public policy advocate of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said the vote was disappointing, but the ACLU is encouraged that it was so close.
“If we have to keep coming back, year after year, to find new ways to kill people because whatever we’ve doing is inhumane, maybe it’s time we just admit there’s no humane way for the government to kill someone,” she said.
House Minority Leader Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, wondered if his colleagues don’t care about how Utah is “perceived in this country and in this world” with how it deals with prisoners. “Let’s move this conversation forward by killing this bill, not killing people,” he said.