Are firing squads a better means of execution than lethal injection?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 16 2010 7:00 AM

Shoot Me Now

Are firing squads a better means of execution than lethal injection?

Ronnie Lee Gardner.
Ronnie Lee Gardner

Ronnie Lee Gardner, on death row in Utah for the murder of a defense attorney in 1985, is scheduled to be executed this week. At one time, he had selected to die by lethal injection, but in a court hearing in April, he expressed a different preference: "I would like the firing squad, please." Utah is the only state in the country that still executes inmates by firing squad. Did Gardner make a foolish choice?

According to the Utah Department of Corrections, Gardner will be strapped to a chair for his execution wearing a jumpsuit with a target pinned to his heart. After offering last words, his face will be hooded, and five pre-selected law enforcement officers will aim for that target with .30-caliber rifles from less than 25 feet away. As in traditional military firing squads, one of those shooters' guns will be loaded with blanks, to keep each one uncertain about whether he fired a fatal shot. In 1996, the last time Utah carried out a firing squad execution, prison officials used a chair with a mesh seat and placed a pan beneath the chair to capture the inmate's blood. (To honor the participating corrections officers, this time the department will issue commemorative coins to everyone involved.)

This may sound gory, but the limited body of research on death penalty methods suggests that the firing squad is actually a pretty good way to go. A Utah inmate who in 1938 agreed to be gunned to death while hooked up to an electrocardiogram showed complete heart death within one minute of the firing squad's shots. By contrast, a typical, complication-free lethal injection takes about nine minutes to kill an inmate.

And a raft of recent cases suggests that lethal injections don't always go as planned. Ohio has opted to change its execution protocol this year after several botched executions, including one last year in which corrections officials attempted to place an IV line for two hours before finally giving up. Death penalty lawyers and human rights groups argued that mix-ups in the drug cocktail administered in most states could result in a long, painful death, tantamount to torture. The Supreme Court rejected that argument. But corrections officials who insert needles and administer the lethal injection drugs have no medical training, since the professional associations of both doctors and nurses have barred their members from participating in executions. The Oklahoma medical examiner who first designed the most common lethal injection protocol critiqued his own method in 2007, after learning about problems with its administration. Nationwide, the federal government and every state with capital punishment use lethal injection as their primary execution method, though several states have backup methods­—including hanging, electrocution, and lethal gas—should lethal injection prove problematic.

By contrast, shooting is simple and deadly. It's easy to find psychologically stable, trained professionals with experience shooting to kill. Assuming that the executioners aim with that purpose, the four-bullet protocol provides a measure of certainty that one bullet will strike the heart, leading to a near instantaneous death.

There is also some evidence that fatal gunshot wounds of the kind sought by executioners are not only relatively swift, but also not terribly painful. According to a 1993 study of the relative pain associated with different execution methods, gunshot gets the highest rank when compared with lethal gas, electrocution, hanging, stoning, and other popular methods. (The paper assumes that the executions go off without a hitch, and gives lethal injection similar high marks.)

Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School who has studied execution methods for nearly two decades, said she'd pick the firing squad if offered Gardner's choice between the two methods. "To me, it seems like the more humane choice," she said.

All of which raises the question: Why did the states drop firing squads in the first place? Death penalty scholars say that legislators tend to like lethal injection because it appears dignified and medical. It also seems to create less media frenzy. When Utah officials were planning the state's most recent firing squad execution, they were met with interest from the international press, repeated comparisons to Old West justice, and a flurry of volunteers offering their services as executioners. Maybe firing squads get people going not just because they're unusual, but because they cater to a certain bloodthirstiness and obsession with guns. And because they seem like a more heroic way todie.In 1996, just before that previous execution, state Rep. Sheryl L. Allen sponsored legislation to phase out the firing squad, saying that it gave the state an image of "brutality."

In 2004, Utah legislators did remove the firing squad option for new prosecutions—though they allowed inmates who were sentenced under the old law to choose it. While gunshots have long been the most common execution method worldwide, they may soon go the way of the electric chair. China, the country that executes more prisoners per year than any other, switched its preferred method from shooting to lethal injection in 2008, to make capital punishment "more humane." But Ronnie Lee Gardner begs to disagree. In 1996, he told the Deseret Morning News: "I like the firing squad. It's so much easier … and there's no mistakes."

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