Earlier this week, reports the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah Governor Gary Herbert, a Republican, signed a bill re-establishing firing squads as a ‘secondary method for executions’, in the event that drugs necessary for lethal injections – the primary method of executions in the Beehive State – are unable to be obtained. Bloomberg Business recently published an article by Matt Stroud that argues in favor of firing squads for death penalty executions. The reason? Lethal injections have proven to be problematic . . .
If the firing squad is gruesome, lethal injection isn’t necessarily humane. After major drug companies began refusing to deliver execution drugs, states were forced to negotiate often-secret contracts with compounding pharmacies to get them. Grisly botched executions, in which condemned killers gasped for air and writhed in pain for an hour or longer before dying, called lethal injection further into question. The most recent came in July 2014.
“In lethal injections, you [typically] have prison personnel acting as medical professionals,” says Dr. Jonathan Groner, a professor of pediatric surgery at Ohio State University who speaks and writes about lethal injection issues. “That’s outside their usual scope of practice.”
In Arizona, after receiving lethal injection drugs, Joseph Wood gasped 640 times over a period of an hour and 40 minutes, according to the Arizona Republic, before he finally died in July. In Oklahoma, Clayton Lockett died 43 minutes after his lethal injection execution began last April—but not from the drugs. He died from a heart attack. That’s troubling, considering that the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty’s legality in 1890 as long as it didn’t involve “a lingering death” or “something more than the mere extinguishment of life.”
Some experts say bullets are just better.
“Every law enforcement officer and every prison guard knows how to fire a gun,” Groner says. “Death by firing squad is fast. When a person’s heart stops pumping, that person loses consciousness. We believe that’s when they stop feeling pain. That’s what a firing squad does. You put a few bullets in someone’s heart, it stops pumping. They lose consciousness almost immediately.”
I don’t have any moral qualms about the death penalty in the abstract, but I certainly have some concerns about the way in which it has been implemented in the United States, as well as some serious doubts about the justice system’s ability to make sure that it isn’t implemented against an innocent person (the case of Randall Dale Adams leaps to mind; there are many other cases.)
Based on past history, I’m skeptical of the government’s ability to deliver the mail, provide welfare transfer payments to individuals or corporations in anything resembling an efficient and fair manner, or bring a foreign expeditionary war to a successful conclusion. I see no reason to the assume that the criminal justice system doesn’t also have a high error rate, and that has to be included in the equation when considering advisability of the death penalty.
Nevertheless, objections to the use of a firing squads as a method of execution versus lethal injection or other (supposedly more ‘civilized’ methods) are silly. Death comes to the convict and ends whatever discomfort he may feel soon enough–perhaps too soon in his mind–whatever manner is chosen.
The reason that firing squads have been spurned in favor of lethal injection is because the lethal injections seem to be more…peaceful. It doesn’t offend our modern sensibilities as much. The injection is given, the convict loses consciousness, and everything’s wrapped up neatly with little psychic discomfort for the witnesses.
A firing squad is by its nature a messier affair. Can one witness an execution in this manner without being acutely aware of the violence of the act? Aware, that is, that a passive subject is being destructively attacked, in an act of violence committed by armed agents of the state with the imprimatur of twelve good people selected at large from the citizenry. This bit of state-mandated violence is done in our name as citizens, giving us a degree of complicity. Perhaps that’s why states with a death penalty have eliminated the firing squad; it may remind the citizenry a little too much just how powerful (and capricious) government can be.
Are firing squads “humane”? Maybe, maybe not. But that question’s beside the point.
With all that said, however, I need to ask a question that’s been bothering me a little since reading Mr. Stroud’s article. Am I the only one who finds it curious that Bloomberg Business, owned by plutocrat and proponent of civilian disarmament Michael Bloomberg, appears to have enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon for firing squads? I know ol’ Mike is something of a proponent of the power of the state over the individual, but this one seems a bit weird, even for him.