The idea of using firing squads is making a comeback. This week, Idaho lawmakers passed a bill to add the state to the list of those authorising firing squads, including Mississippi, Utah, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
New interest comes as states scramble for alternatives to lethal injections after pharmaceutical companies barred the use of their drugs.
Some, including a few Supreme Court justices, view firing squads as less cruel than lethal injections, despite the violence in riddling bodies with bullets. Others say it’s not so cut-and-dry or that other factors must be considered.
A look at the status of firing squads in the United States:
When was the last execution by firing squad?
Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed at Utah State Prison on June 18, 2010, for killing an attorney during a courthouse escape attempt.
Gardner sat in a chair, sandbags around him and a target pinned over his heart. Five prison staffers drawn from a pool of volunteers fired from about eight metres away with .30-caliber rifles. Gardner was pronounced dead two minutes later.
A blank cartridge was loaded into one rifle without anyone knowing which. That’s partly done to enable those bothered later by their participation to believe they may not have fired a fatal bullet.
Utah is the only state to have used firing squads in the past 50 years, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.
What has caused the lethal drug scarcity?
Under Idaho’s bill, firing squads would be used only if executioners can’t obtain the drugs required for lethal injections.
As lethal injection became the primary execution method in the 2000s, drug companies began barring the use of their drugs, saying they were meant to save lives, not take them.
States have found it challenging to obtain the cocktail of drugs they long relied on, such as sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride.
Some have switched to more accessible drugs such as pentobarbital or midazolam, which, critics say, can cause excruciating pain.
Other states have authorised using electric chairs and gas chambers – or are at least doing so. That’s where firing squads come in.
Are they more humane?
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is among those who say firing squads are a more humane method of execution.
That idea is based on expectations that bullets will strike the heart, rupturing it and causing immediate unconsciousness as the inmate quickly bleeds to death.
“In addition to being near instant, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless,” Sotomayor wrote in a 2017 dissent.
Her comments came in the case of an Alabama inmate who asked to be executed by firing squad.
A Supreme Court majority refused to hear his appeal. In her dissent, Sotomayor said lethal drugs can mask intense pain by paralysing inmates while they are still sentient.
“What cruel irony that the method that appears most humane may turn out to be our most cruel experiment yet,” she wrote.
But is death by firing squad really painless?
In a 2019 federal case, prosecutors submitted statements from anesthesiologist Joseph Antognini, who said painless deaths by firing squads are not guaranteed.
Inmates could remain conscious for up to 10 seconds after being shot, depending on where bullets strike, Antognini said, and those seconds could be “severely painful, especially related to shattering of bone and damage to the spinal cord”.
Others note that killings by firing squad are visibly violent and bloody compared with lethal injections, potentially traumatising victims’ relatives and other witnesses as well as executioners and staffers who clean up afterwards.
Are firing squads more reliable?
If reliability means the condemned are more likely to die as intended, then one could make that argument.
An Amherst College political science and law professor, Austin Sarat, studied 8,776 executions in the US between 1890 and 2010 and found that 276 of them were botched, or 3.15%.
The executions included 7.12% of all lethal injections – in one notorious 2014 case in Oklahoma, Clayton Locket writhed and clenched his teeth after administering midazolam, and 3.12% of hangings and 1.92% of electrocutions.
By contrast, not one of the 34 firing squad executions was found to have been botched, according to Sarat, who has called for an end to capital punishment.
However, the Death Penalty Information Center has identified at least one firing squad execution that reportedly went awry: In 1879, in Utah territory, riflemen missed Wallace Wilkerson’s heart, and it took 27 minutes for him to die.
Has the Supreme Court weighed in?
High court rulings have required inmates who oppose an existing execution method to offer an alternative. In addition, they must prove that the choice is “significantly” less painful and that the infrastructure exists to implement the alternative plan.
That has led to the spectacle of inmate attorneys bringing multiple cases in which they argue the merits of firing squads.
In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in Bucklew v Precythe that some pain does not automatically mean a method of execution constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment, which the Eighth Amendment prohibits.
The Constitution “does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death – something that, of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the 5-4 majority.
Key factors in deciding whether a method is “cruel and unusual” include whether it adds extra pain “beyond what’s needed to effectuate a death sentence,” Gorsuch said.
For Advert Inquiries & News/Article Publishing