The Firing Squad Makes a Comeback
Utah’s shocking decision to reinstate the firing squad as a method of execution is a response to embargoes and boycotts—and may accelerate the decline of the death penalty.
Last week, Utah’s legislature passed a bill reintroducing the firing squad as an alternate form of execution when lethal injection drugs are unavailable. The bill will go to Republican Governor Gary Herbert’s desk this week. He has not yet said whether he will sign it.
One thing is sure, however: Utah’s firing squads cast a harsh light on the American system of death, which is an anomaly amid a global decline in capital punishment.
In fact, Utah is not actually the first state to consider alternatives to lethal injection. Last month, the Wyoming House comparatively quietly voted to reinstate the firing squad, with the stipulation that the prisoner must be made unconscious beforehand—all this even though Wyoming’s death row is empty. Oklahoma has proposed reversion to the gas chamber with the use of nitrogen gas to starve the body of oxygen.
Why is all of this happening? Because of a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs. A European Union embargo on Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck’s export of pentobarbital and Illinois-based Hospira’s refusal to sell sodium thiopental to corrections facilities have helped create a nationwide shortage of the most common drugs used in lethal injection. As a result, Ohio has postponed all executions for the rest of the year, Georgia dramatically postponed the execution of Kelly Gissendaner just minutes before she was to be put to death because her lethal injection drugs were not mixed correctly, and many states (including Pennsylvania and South Carolina) are already out of the drugs. Texas used its second-to-last dose Wednesday night. Thus, pressure is building to follow Utah’s lead and reinstate another method of execution.
Now, on a scientific level, it is not clear that the firing squad or gas chamber are necessarily riskier or more painful than lethal injection, properly performed. At a human level, however, the reintroduction of discarded methods of execution is troubling because it reminds us of the death penalty’s morbid, anachronistic nature, like a product of an earlier time when justice was less discerning, less “civilized.”
That image is not inaccurate. In fact, the decline of capital punishment everywhere in the world has followed from this process. Globally, legal capital punishment is largely restricted to the Islamic world and East and Southeast Asia. In Europe, Latin America, and the South Pacific region, the death penalty is virtually extinct. Executions have even dwindled to only a handful each year in all of Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet bloc combined. India carries out about one execution per decade. There are, to be sure, some surprising holdouts: The most obvious is Japan, a respectable liberal democracy, yet one with a secretive death penalty process and lack of public debate on the issue. But such exceptions are increasingly rare.
Although lethal injection is the most widely used method of execution in the United States (and, for the moment, the only method actively used), just five other countries authorize death by lethal injection, according to Cornell University Law School’s Death Penalty Worldwide: China, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, and—although it no longer carries out executions—Guatemala. Each of these countries now faces the same shortage of lethal injection drugs as the United States. In 2013, Vietnam, like Utah, considered reverting to firing squad instead of lethal injection, but ultimately opted to concoct home-grown chemicals rather than rely on the international pharmaceutical market.
If not by injection, how do the countries with the death penalty carry out executions? Hanging is the most common method, and remains on the books in 60 countries. Firing squad is the second-most common form (29 countries), followed by firing by a single shooter (23 countries). Stoning is in fourth place: though legal in nine countries (more than lethal injection), it is often restricted to only a handful of very specific offenses and rarely used. Five countries authorize beheading. Meanwhile, only the United States uses electrocution and the gas chamber, making these methods about as unusual as “pushing individuals from an unknown height,” a legal method of execution in Iran and prominently used in the Islamic State.
The triumph of lethal injection in the United States is part of a much longer trend, going back two centuries, to “civilize” capital punishment. The English example is instructive. In 1824, condemned prisoners in England were no longer required to carry their hanging rope to the scaffold. Gibbeting, the public display of a hanged prisoner after death, ceased in 1832. Shortly thereafter, black curtains were draped around the base of the scaffold to prevent the public from seeing the gruesome death. In 1868, the practice of public execution ceased altogether, though it continued in the Empire for longer. It wasn't found unconstitutional in India until 1986.
Methods of execution have continued this “civilizing” trend. The ax gave way to the guillotine’s precision and consistency. Hanging was perceived to be an improvement on the violent methods of execution that predated it, and firing squad, electrocution, and gas chamber were said to be improvements on hanging. Lethal injection revolutionized the process of capital punishment by turning it into a seemingly medical procedure that was not apparently painful as a result of a hefty dose of a sedative.
In this respect, Utah’s legislation looks like a reversal of this civilizing process. The crisis of lethal injection has already led to experimental drug cocktails, procurement of drugs from veterinary clinics and unregulated compounding pharmacies, and several botched executions. The domesticated death penalty is becoming feral.
One might argue that attempting to civilize executions a fool’s errand. No “civilized” method of execution can reconcile the underlying problems with the capital punishment system as it currently exists: inadequate assistance of counsel, racial sentencing disparities, higher structural costs, and wrongful convictions. If that is true, then Utah’s action may continue the global erosion of the death penalty by unmasking it for what it is: institutionalized death. Capital punishment has nowhere left to hide.