CHICAGO (AP) — The image of gunmen firing in unison into the chest of a condemned inmate might conjure up memories of a bygone, less enlightened era.
But the idea of using firing squads is making a comeback. Idaho lawmakers passed a state annexation bill this week to the list of those who authorize firing squadscurrently mississippi, utah, oklahoma and South Carolina.
The fresh interest comes as states scramble for alternatives to lethal injection after prohibited pharmaceuticals their drug use.
Some, including several Supreme Court justices, consider execution to be less cruel than lethal injection, despite the violence associated with piercing bodies with bullets. Others say it’s not that simple, or that there are other factors to consider.
Here’s a look at the status of firing squads in the United States:
WHEN WAS THE LAST EXECUTION?
Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed in a Utah state prison on June 18, 2010, for killing a lawyer while trying to escape from a courthouse.
Gardner sat in a chair, sandbags around him and a target pinned to his heart. Five prison officers, drawn from a pool of volunteers, fired .30-caliber rifles from 25 feet (about 8 meters). Gardner was pronounced dead two minutes later.
The empty cartridge was loaded into one rifle, it is not known which one. This is done in part to make those who later worry about their involvement believe that they may not have fired the 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 CAUSED THE DEADLY DRUG SHORTAGE?
Under the Idaho bill, firing squads would only be used if cats can’t get the medication they need for lethal injections.
When lethal injection became the primary method of execution in the 2000s, drug companies began to ban the use of their drugs, saying they were meant to save lives, not take them.
States have struggled to obtain a cocktail of drugs they’ve long relied on, such as sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride.
Some states have switched to more affordable drugs like pentobarbital or midazolam, both of which critics say can cause excruciating pain.
Other states have turned to alternatives, with some either resuming the use of electric chairs and gas chambers, or at least considering them. This is where firing squads come in.
ARE THEY MORE HUMANE?
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is among those who say it probably is.
This idea is based on the expectation that the bullets will hit the heart, tear it open and render him unconscious as the prisoner rapidly bleeds to death.
“In addition to the fact that death by gunshot can be almost instantaneous, it can also be relatively painless,” Sotomayor wrote in a 2017 dissent.
Her comments were in the case of an Alabama inmate who asked to be executed by firing squad. A majority of the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal.
Sotomayor agreed in her dissent that lethal drugs can mask severe pain, paralyzing inmates while they are still sane.
“What a cruel irony that the method that seems most humane can turn out to be our most cruel experiment,” she wrote.
IS THERE A COUNTER-ARGUMENT TO THIS?
In a 2019 federal case, prosecutors presented statements from anesthesiologist Joseph Antonigni, who said a painless death by firing squad was not guaranteed.
Inmates can remain conscious for up to 10 seconds after being shot, depending on where the bullet hits, Antonigni said, and those seconds can be “extremely painful, especially associated with broken bones and spinal cord damage.”
Others point out that firing squad killings are decidedly brutal and bloody compared to lethal injection, potentially traumatizing victims’ relatives and other witnesses, as well as the executioners and staff who clean up afterward.
SHOOTING UNITS MORE RELIABLE?
If reliability means that the condemned are more likely to die as intended, then such an argument can be made.
Amherst College political science and law professor Austin Sarat studied 8,776 executions in the U.S. from 1890 to 2010 and found that 276 were botched, or 3.15% of the time.
Penalties that went wrong included 7.12% of all lethal injection — in one famous 2014 case in Oklahoma, Clayton Medallion grimaced and gritted his teeth after the introduction of midazolam — as well as 3.12% of hangings and 1.92% of electric shocks.
By contrast, none of the 34 executions were found to be botched, according to Sarat, who has called for an end to the death penalty.
However, the Death Penalty Information Center found at least one execution that reportedly went wrong: In 1879 in Utah, shooters missed Wallace Wilkerson’s heart and it took him 27 minutes to die.
WERE THERE EVER WIDE SHOOTING SQUADONS?
They have never been the primary method of carrying out executions among civilians and are more closely associated with the military, including the execution of Civil War deserters.
From colonial days to 2002. more than 15 thousand people were shot, according to data compiled by death penalty researchers M. Wyatt Espy and John Ortiz Smikla. Only 143 were shot, compared to 9,322 who were hanged and 4,426 who were electrocuted.
DID THE SUPREME COURT MIND?
Supreme court rulings oblige inmates who oppose the current method of capital punishment to offer an alternative. They must prove both that the alternative is “significantly” less painful and that the infrastructure exists to implement the alternative method in practice.
This has led to the ridiculous spectacle of inmate lawyers launching numerous cases challenging the merits of firing squads.
In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Presite that certain pain does not automatically mean that a punishment method constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
The Constitution “does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death — something that is certainly not 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 additional pain “beyond what is necessary to carry out a death sentence,” Gorsuch said.
Suggest a correction