Death by firing squad is resurfacing for death penalty cases

On a cool June night in 2010, Utah prison guards strapped convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner into a heavy steel chair flanked by black sandbags, securing his head in a halo brace. A doctor put a stethoscope to Gardner's chest, then fastened a small target over the condemned man's heart.

Minutes later, five marksmen, identities unknown, trained their Winchester rifles on Gardner from 25 yards, then opened fire on the executioner's command. The fusillade exploded through the hooded inmate's torso, killing him almost instantly.

Gardner was the most recent U.S. prisoner to die by firing squad, a method of death once considered too brutal and offensive for civilized American society. But he might not be the last.

An ongoing shortage of lethal injection drugs – coupled with the grisly spectacle of botched executions and a number of legal challenges to the use of less-effective substitute drugs – has several states, and at least one inmate, calling for the return of the firing squad.

RELATED: Infamous death penalty cases

Notable death penalty executions and people on death row
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Notable death penalty executions and people on death row
Seated on his bunk in the death cell of Iberia Parish Courthouse, convinced that 'The Lord is Still with Me,' is Willie Francis, a 17-year-old who won a million-to-one chance of a reprieve from death when the electric chair failed to kill him, or even hurt him, at his scheduled execution on May 3. Sentenced to die for the murder of a St. Martinville druggist a year ago, Francis was strapped in the chair. The current was applied. The doomed man squirmed and jumped. But when the current was shut off, he was unharmed. 'It tickled a little,' he said. The state will try again to carry out the execution on Thursday May 9th.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

This is John Wayne Gacy's police arrest photo from Dec. 21, 1978. Following intensive research, investigation and surveillance, Gacy was arrested by the Des Plaines (Ill.) Police Department on Thursday, Dec. 21, 1978. After being charged with and serving time for 33 murders, Gacy was executed in 1994 by lethal injection. Today, Monday, Nov. 23, 1998, technicians began preliminary work on a possible excavation at an apartment building on Chicago's Northwest Side in search of as many as four more possible victims of the mass murderer. The apartment building at one time, was the home of Gacy's mother, and Gacy had done some construction work there. The information regarding the location was recently released from a retired Chicago police officer who said he had seen Gacy carrying a shovel near the area at about 3 a.m. one day in 1975. The former officer reportedly thought little of the Gacy sighting until three years later, when Gacy was charged with 33 murders. The apartment building is about four miles away from Gacy's house.

(Des Plaines Police Department, Tim Boyle)

A portrait of mass murderer Ted Bundy, responsible for a string of murders in Washington state, Utah, and Florida in the 1970s. He was executed in in Florida on January 24, 1989. His actual victim count remains unknown.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Aileen Wuornos is shown in this undated photograph from the Florida Department of Corrections. Wournos was executed by lethal injection October 9, 2002 in Florida for murdering six men when she was a prostitute.

(Photo by Florida DOC/Getty Images)

Admitted mass-slayer Charles Starkweather is shown entering court for the second day of his trial for murder. Starkweather admitted killing 11 people and was executed in Nebraska on June 25, 1959. 

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is shown being escorted from the Noble County Courthouse as he is transported to Oklahoma City for arraignment in this April 22, 1995 file photo. On June 11, 2001, McVeigh was executed after being sentenced to death for the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, a crime that took 168 lives and shook a complacent America to the core.

(Jim Bourg / Reuters)

Gary Gilmore, responsible for the shooting deaths of two men, was executed in Utah on January 17, 1977.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Media witnesses to the firing squad execution of John Albert Taylor examine the chair in which Taylor sat as he was shot to death at 12:03 a.m. Mountain time January 26 at the Unita State Penitentiary in Utah. The execution of Taylor was the first by firing squad in the United States since the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah.

(POOL New / Reuters)

Stanley 'Tookie Williams' was responsible for several murders and other crimes and was executed in California on December 13, 2005. Williams helped found the Crips gang, but was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-gang efforts. He authored such books as 'Life in Prison,' encouraging kids to stay out of gangs, and his memoir 'Blue Rage, Black Redemption'.'

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Teresa Lewis, convicted of murdering her husband and stepson, was executed in Virginia on September 23, 2010. She was the first woman executed in the state in nearly 100 years.

(REUTERS/Virginia Department of Corrections/Handout)

William Bonin (left), a 33-year-old truck driver and registered sex offender, was accused of the 'torture' murders of at least 13 and possibly 21 young males, suspected victims of the so called 'Freeway Killer. He was executed in California on February 23, 1996.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department also said Vernon Butts (right) was an accomplice in at least six of the 21 murders.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, responsible for Boston Marathon bombing, was sentenced to death on May 15, 2015.

(Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist charged in a mass shooting at the U.S. Army post in Fort Hood, Texas, was sentenced to death on August 28, 2013.

(Ho New / Reuters)

Joseph E. Duncan III, a convicted murderer and sex offender, was sentenced to death on August 27, 2008.

 (Photo provided by Kootenai County Sheriff's Department via Getty Images)

Coy Wesbrook was executed in 2016. He fatally shot five people in 1997 with a hunting rifle in a killing spree launched when he found his ex-wife having sex with other men.

(REUTERS/Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Handout via Reuters)

Dylann Roof, the man convicted of murdering nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston was condemned to death by a federal jury on January 10, 2017.

(REUTERS/Charleston County Sheriff's Office/Handout)

Death row inmate Ricky Gray is shown in this undated photo released in Washington, DC, U.S. in 2016. Virginia Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Christopher Wilkins, 48, Texas death row inmate convicted of killing two people in a revenge plot after one had tricked him in a $20 drug deal, is shown in this undated photo in Huntsville, Texas, U.S.. Courtesy Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.

Deathrow inmate Mark Asay is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters August 14, 2017.

He was executed by a lethal injection that included a drug never before used in a U.S. execution, state officials said.

(Florida Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS)

Vernon Madison, one of Alabama's longest-serving death row inmates, pictured in this handout photo, to is set to be executed at William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, United States on May 12, 2016 even as the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered a review into whether the state's current sentencing scheme is constitutional. 

(Alabama Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS)


In 2015, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, signed a bill that established firing squads as an execution option, reversing an 11-year ban, though no one has been put to death since Gardner. In Mississippi, a bill authorizing firing squads cleared the state House in early February before the state Senate shot it down. Firing squads are on the books in Oklahoma, and lawmakers in other Southern states are said to be considering similar legislation.

Meanwhile, in late February, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the request by Thomas Arthur, an Alabama death-row prisoner who wanted the state to fatally shoot him rather than subject him to the likelihood of a painful death from secret, experimental lethal-injection drugs.

But Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor excoriated her colleagues for tacitly endorsing execution methods that could reasonably be considered as cruel or inhumane – and she pointed to firing squads as the way to go.

"Some might find this choice regressive, but the available evidence suggests that a competently performed shooting may cause nearly instant death," Sotomayor wrote in a blistering dissent. "In addition to being near instant, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless. And historically, the firing squad has yielded significantly fewer botched executions."

Death penalty opponents, however, say firing squads aren't fail-safe, the condemned don't always die immediately and the procedure smacks of tin-horn dictatorships, undermining America's global standing as a champion of human rights. That states are looking to salvage the practice, they say, is yet another sign that capital punishment is on its way out.

"I think that the death penalty is in big trouble in the United States," says Austin Sarat, an associate dean and law and political science professor at Amherst College.

"The legitimacy of capital punishment has been sustained in part by the belief that we could find a way of execution that would be safe, reliable and sane," says Sarat, the author of "Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty." He notes the same arguments officials are making for the firing squad – it's quick, it's humane, it's reliable – were the same ones proponents used for lethal injections as its more clinical, civilized replacement.

"It's a back-to-the-future [method] that was replaced for a reason," Sarat says.

The discussion over firing squads, however, has emerged against a series of bungled lethal-injection execution attempts, the effect of an engineered shortage of highly-effective drugs used to sedate and quickly kill the condemned.

Several years ago, in a blow against capital punishment, the worldwide pharmaceutical industry has stopped supplying the drug protocol to death-penalty states that execute by lethal injection. Because of the boycott – and several high-profile DNA exonerations of death-row inmates – the number of executions in the United States stalled, and then dropped to historic lows.

Scrambling for a Plan B, authorities began using combinations of drugs available on the market that were supposed to bring swift, painless death, but the opposite has happened.

Some inmates have remained conscious for several minutes, screaming in agony as the toxic chemicals entered their bloodstreams. Others have foamed at the mouth in violent spasms, gasping for air as they died. Experts say the experience is probably akin to being burned alive from the inside out; in one Oklahoma execution, inmate Clayton Lockett contorted in pain for nearly an hour before he died.

Several death-row inmates have challenged the new drug combination as cruel and inhumane, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that that the lethal cocktail was legal under the Constitution. Nevertheless, corrections officials and death-penalty opponents, eager to avoid macabre headlines, are resurrecting an anachronistic punishment once considered the stuff of pulp fiction and lawless banana republics.

"The elusive search in the modern era for humane methods of execution was a reaction to the perceived barbarity of death by methods like the firing squad," Phyllis Goldfarb, a George Washington University law professor, writes in an email.

"Death by firing squad is not pain- and botch-free," Goldfarb writes, noting some marksmen have missed the heart target and hit other parts of the body, while others have fired prematurely. "The condemned dies from blood loss and loses consciousness when blood supplied to the brain drops precipitously. Even when the people in the firing squad hit their target as intended, it may take at least a couple of minutes for the condemned to die and sometimes much longer."

To that point, firing-squad proponents have a quick retort: So what?

"How could a civilized society place a man before a firing squad, [opponents] ask," writes Joseph R. Murray II, a guest columnist for the Jackson, Miss., Clarion Ledger, commenting on the debate over the state's proposal to have inmates die by the bullet.

"To these folks, that's third-world justice. But isn't a firing squad the most humane way to execute a criminal? Isn't death instantaneous?" Murray asks. "Where lethal injection could go awry, causing prolonged pain, and electrocution could not work effectively, there is no doubt multiple bullets do the job quickly and safely."

Such was the case with Gardner, the Utah inmate who was executed in 2010. He was condemned for killing a bartender, then gunning down a lawyer in a brazen courthouse escape attempt in the 1980s. Though the state had outlawed firing squads six years before his execution, Gardner -- who had been behind bars for most of his adult life -- was an exception: Since he was sentenced in 1985, he got to choose his method of death.

"'I lived by the gun, I murdered with a gun, so I will die by the gun," he told loved ones.

The anonymous sharpshooters who killed Gardner came from a volunteer pool of trained law-enforcement officers; those from the area where the crime happened are preferred. Authorities say prison officials typically get more volunteers than they need,, and Gardner's execution was no exception.

Before he was strapped to the steel chair, the five officers on the squad loaded one round into their state-issued rifles. One random cartridge is blank, so no officer is entirely sure if he or she fired a fatal round.

Though Utah had banned firing squads in 2004, lawmakers voted to bring back the procedure in 2015, their response to the shortage of death-penalty drugs. But Goldfarb says if authorities want to be absolutely certain that an inmate dies instantly without pain or suffering, they can choose another target on the body.

"Firing a gun at point blank range into the head" is 100 percent effective, and "would cause a near-instantaneous death. But it would be exceedingly violent and destructive," Goldfarb writes. "But could we ask someone to inflict that kind of violence on another as part of their job as a state employee? If the state were to authorize such a gruesome spectacle in the name of law, how could we maintain our standing in the world as a protector of human rights?"

Still, she predicts the firing squad debate could go far in the current law-and-order climate ushered in with President Donald Trump's inauguration.

"I see the present moment as one in which fair debate based on factual evidence is being threatened and 'fear of the other' who would use violence to harm 'us' is being fanned for political gain," she writes. "These are the emotional conditions that have allowed the death penalty to persist in America – providing a simple answer to a complex problem."

Still, "there may be pockets of renewed death penalty support, using whatever methods are permitted," writes Goldfarb. "But I don't think that approach will become widespread again, as it degrades us as a society and depends on rhetoric that is divisive, cynical, extremely racialized, and ultimately corrosive to America."

In Utah, some lawmakers apparently agree: A bill to completely abolish capital punishment in the Beehive State nearly reached the governor's desk last year. During the legislative debate, Ricky Gardner, Randy Gardner's brother, temporarily disrupted the session, waving enlarged photos of his brother's autopsy, showing a black, grapefruit-sized hole where his heart used to be.

"This is my brother!" Randy Gardner yelled. "Look at that! That's somebody's little brother, that's somebody's dad! That's what the death penalty's done to Utah!"

Around that time, the Salt Lake Tribune went all-in for repealing the death penalty, recalling the state's early history of rough frontier justice, as well as the years (and millions of state taxpayer dollars) it takes for an inmate to exhaust his legal appeals.

Firing squads, the paper declared, are "a relic of a brutal age that casts the state in the most negative light before the world," the paper declared. "The legal, ethical and financial arguments necessary to make the death penalty seem like anything other that what it is – thuggish, expensive vengeance that harms everyone it touches – are getting harder and harder to make, or believe."

"It's time to end this practice," the editorial concluded, "once and for all."

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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