Wild West “Blood Atonement” Mentality Triumphs: Utah Senate Says Bring Back Firing Squads

utah firing squad

On Tuesday, the Utah State Senate voted 18-10, to reinstate the firing squad as a possible form of execution for criminals convicted of a capital offense. The vote fell largely on party lines, with 18 Republicans voting for the measure, and all 6 Senate Democrats voting against the bill. Four Republicans joined the Democrats in opposing the proposed law to bring back firing squads. On February 13th, the Republican-controlled House passed the bill on a close 39-34 vote. The measure now awaits Republican Governor Gary Herbert’s signature. The Governor has not yet stated clearly whether or not he intends to sign the bill.

If Governor Herbert decides to sign the bill into law, Utah will be the only state in the nation that approves the firing squad as a legal form of execution. Utah outlawed the firing squad in 2004, but prisoners who had been sentenced to death, prior to the ban, were still able to choose to die by firing squad rather than by lethal injection. Convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner was the last person executed by a firing squad in Utah. He was executed in 2010.

The bill was proposed, in part, to permit a back-up plan, in case the state’s supply of the drugs needed for lethal injections was depleted. A nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental, caused by U.S. company Hospira discontinuing production of the drug, has sent 35 states into a panic to obtain the drug, or to seek alternative forms of execution. Sodium thiopental is an anesthetic that is part of a three-drug lethal cocktail used by most states to perform lethal injections. Ohio only has one dose remaining. Texas has just two doses left.

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The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Ray (R-Clearfield) argued that firing squads are more humane than lethal injections, and that executions by firing squads are less likely to be botched. However, Utah has had at least two botched firing squad executions in its history. In both cases the executioners missed the target’s heart, and the condemned inmate died a slow and agonizing death. In 1879, Wallace Wilkerson took 27 minutes to die, after being hit with a volley of bullets. Likewise, in 1951, Eliseo Mares took several minutes to die when his executioners missed his heart.

Firing squad opponents argued that bringing back firing squads was brutal and antiquated. Ralph Dellapiana, director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, criticized the legislation. He deplored the decision, stating, ”I think Utah took a giant step backward,” and called firing squads “a relic of a more barbaric past.”

Firing squads are not only cruel, but as a holdover from the Wild West era, they also conjure up images of a bloody, chaotic past. Compounding the problem is that in Utah, that past is marred by the 19th-Century Mormon tradition of blood atonement. That notion requires grievous sinners to atone for their transgressions by literally shedding their blood on the ground, so that God can consider their salvation.

While the contemporary LDS Church disavows the doctrine of “blood atonement”, the concept is interwoven into Utah’s History. It was expressly supported by former Mormon Church President, and 19th century Utah Territory Governor, Brigham Young. The concept is still popular with fringe fundamentalist offshoots of the Mormon faith. Most Utah lawmakers who favor reinstating firing squads are not expressly doing so to support the anachronistic idea of blood atonement. Nevertheless, because Utah seems uniquely supportive of firing squads, it does raise questions surrounding the state’s apparent love affair with spilling the blood of its condemned prisoners.

Bringing back firing squads is a step backward. Instead of bringing back the barbaric execution methods of the 19th century, Utah should consider joining the 18 U.S. states that have abolished the death penalty. Some of those states are Western states like Utah. For example, Alaska abolished the death penalty in 1957, North Dakota ended it in 1973, and New Mexico voted to abolish it in 2009 (though it still has two inmates on death row, because the law was not applied retroactively). In 2013, The United States executed more prisoners than all but four other countries — China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. To most of the world, those are countries whose human rights records are viewed as unacceptable. To Utah Republicans those are nations that state lawmakers are seeking to emulate.
Image via NBC News

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