Utah governor signs law bringing back firing squad for executions

Faced with a nationwide scarcity of execution drugs, Utah’s governor on Monday signed into law a bill that resurrects the use firing squads as an alternative method of executing condemned inmates. The law allows Utah to use a firing squad only if the lethal injection drugs are unavailable 30 days before an execution is scheduled to take place.

“Those who voiced opposition to this bill are primarily arguing against capital punishment in general and that decision has already been made in our state,” said Marty Carpenter, spokesman for Herbert.

“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. 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.”

The statement emphasized that lethal injection remains the primary method for carrying out executions in Utah. At a press conference last week, Herbert told reporters that he preferred the lethal injection method, but said “we need to have a fallback”.

With lethal injections in short supply around the country, Utah is one of a handful of states returning to execution practices once abandoned for their gruesome nature. This year, lawmakers in Arkansas are considering a proposal to allow the firing squad, and in Oklahoma, a lawmaker there proposed a bill that would allow nitrogen case as an alternative to lethal injections. Other states have debated bringing back the electric chair.

The firing squad as a form of state execution has only rarely been used in the US since the end of the Civil War. But the few that have been carried out since then were all in Utah. The state eliminated execution by firing squad in 2004, but inmates condemned before then still have the option of choosing it. The the last prisoner put to death that way was Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010.

On his execution day, five anonymous marksmen took aim at a target pinned over his heart and fired. One of the guns was loaded with blanks, so no one would know who fired the fatal shot.

While Utah is not currently expected to schedule another execution for several years, Herbert’s office said last week he had received hundreds of letters about the measure. A good chunk of the messages in opposition came from a campaign against the proposal by the American Civil Liberties Union, where individuals could write to the governor with a pre-written email.

The governor’s office received out-of-state phone calls about the bill. But it only tracks those from Utah residents and had none to report. The messages Herbert did receive were primarily emails and came from people in Utah and those living as far away as Rhode Island, Minnesota and even New Zealand.

Several people wrote to say they would not vacation in Utah if the bill is approved. “I will never again come to Utah to ski if this barbaric execution style is used again in your state,” wrote Randy Kilmer, a Seattle resident. Gary Gilmore was executed by a Utah firing squad in 1977, having asked for that method after a moratorium on capital punishment was lifted in 1976, but a 2004 law made lethal injection the only valid form of execution.