SALT LAKE CITY – Could firing squads once again become a method of execution in Utah? Preliminary approval of a proposed bill last week by a legislative committee may have put the matter on a path to the 2015 session of the Utah Legislature.
The Law Enforcement and Justice Interim Committee voted 9-2 on Nov. 19 to endorse legislation that would allow a firing squad to be used as an alternative to lethal injection if the drugs needed for lethal injection were unavailable to the state.
State Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who brought forward the proposed bill, said the European company that sells the cocktail of drugs needed for lethal injection is refusing to sell to the United States due to objections over capital punishment.
During the committee meeting, Ray said if the drugs needed for lethal injection were not available 30 or more days prior to an execution date specified on a death warrant, then the method of execution reverts to a firing squad.
Lethal injections have come under scrutiny in recent years because of seemingly botched executions. In April 2014, it took convicted rapist Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma more than 40 minutes to die after being injected. Witnesses said Lockett began to writhe and groan. Though the execution process was halted, Lockett died of a heart attack.
“I don’t know if you can call them botched because they did die,” Paul said of Lockett’s execution and other like it. “I wish we could have found a way to make it longer and not shorter on his death to be honest with you. These are heinous people.”
Firing squads were taken off the table as a primary means of execution in Utah by the Legislature in 2003. However, under current Utah law, if lethal injection is found to be unconstitutional, “the method of execution shall be a firing squad.”
Before 2003, inmates were allowed to choose the method of their execution. Some of those inmates who made the choice before 2003 will still be able to go before the guns, as their requests have been grandfathered in under the legislation.
The last time a firing squad was used in Utah was during the 2010 execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner, who had been convicted of a 1985 murder of attorney Michael Burdell.
Not everyone on the committee was encouraged by the prospect of firing squads making a comeback.
Reps. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, and Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, voted against endorsing the measure.
“I don’t see where this bill is needed,” Wheatley said. “We’re not correcting any problem … It’s not solving anything, so I can’t be in support of this particular legislation.”
Jean Hill, of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, voiced the diocese’s opposition to the potential legislation, as it is against the death penalty in general.
“We don’t think there’s a humane way to kill anyone,” she said.
In Southern Utah, the death sentence is currently being sought by the Washington County Attorney’s Office against Brandon Perry Smith, who is accused of killing 20-year-old Jerrica Christensen in a double murder committed in December 2010. If Smith is convicted with the death penalty attached and the drugs for lethal injection aren’t available, he would be facing a firing squad, as outlined in Ray’s proposed bill.
Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, said he was familiar with Ray’s legislation and that there are some possible problems with lethal injection.
“Utah needs to look into those issues and find out what’s causing problems,” he said.
Snow said he isn’t opposed to Ray’s bill and would give it fair consideration before coming to a final determination, should it reach the House floor for a vote next year. However, he also said the state needs to proceed carefully before giving up on lethal injection as a humane means of execution, even if the firing squad is only a proposed alternative at this point.
“I think it’s important that we don’t allow emotion to get into (the debate),” Snow said.
If the drugs needed for lethal injections continue to be to be scarce and legal challenges eventually do away with the practice, Ray told Fox13 that firing squads could possibly return as a primary method of execution in the state.
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