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Utah weighs return to firing squad as execution method

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 7:54 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of a botched lethal injection in Oklahoma last month, a Utah lawmaker says he believes a firing squad is a more humane form of execution. And he plans to bring back that option for criminals sentenced to death in his state.

Rep. Paul Ray, a Republican from the northern Utah city of Clearfield, plans to introduce his proposal during Utah's next legislative session in January.

Lawmakers in Wyoming and Missouri floated similar ideas this year, but both efforts stalled. Ray may succeed.

Utah has a tradition of execution by firing squad, with five police officers using .30-caliber Winchester rifles to execute Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010, the last execution by rifle held in the state.

Ray argues the controversial method may seem more palatable now, especially as states struggle to maneuver lawsuits and drug shortages that have complicated lethal injections.

“It sounds like the Wild West, but it's probably the most humane way to kill somebody,” he said.

Utah eliminated execution by firing squad in 2004, citing the excessive media attention it gave inmates. But those sentenced to death before that date still had the option of choosing it, which is how Gardner ended up standing in front of five armed Utah police officers. He was sentenced to death for fatally shooting a Salt Lake City attorney in 1985 while trying to escape from a courthouse.

He was the third person to die by firing squad after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. A couple of other death row inmates have opted to die by gunfire instead of lethal injection in Utah, but they are all several years away from exhausting the appeals of their death sentences, Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker said. Ray's proposal would give all inmates the option.

Lethal injection, the default method of execution in the United States, has received heightened scrutiny after secrecy and drug shortages in recent years and the April incident in Oklahoma, when inmate Clayton Lockett's vein collapsed and he died of a heart attack more than 40 minutes later.

Ray and lawmakers in other states have suggested firing squads might be the cheapest and most humane method.

“The prisoner dies instantly,” Ray said. “It sounds draconian. It sounds really bad, but the minute the bullet hits your heart, you're dead. There's no suffering.”

Opponents of the proposal say firing squads are not a fool-proof answer.

It's possible an inmate could move or shooters could miss, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.

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