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Utah and the Use of Firing Squads

Articles on Utah's Firing Squads

The History

Utah is one of two states that offer execution by firing squad as an option to condemned inmates (Idaho is the other). Since Furman and the reinstatement of the death penalty in the USA in 1976, Utah has executed six inmates. Only two inmates have chosen the firing squad as their method of execution, the only two inmates in America to be executed by firing squad since reinstatement. Gary Gilmore (the first inmate executed in America since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976) was executed on January 17, 1977 and John Taylor was executed on January 27, 1996. As of January 2003, Utah has 11 people on death row. The last person to be executed in Utah was Joseph Parsons in 1999.

The Procedure

There is no official procedure for execution by firing squad. However, it is believed that five correctional officers will participate, each aiming at the inmate’s trunk. Some will have blanks and some will have live ammunition so that no one knows which gun committed the actual killing.

The Statutes

77-18-5.5 Judgment of death --Defendant to select method --Time of selection.

When a person is convicted of a capital felony and the judgment of death has been imposed, the defendant is entitled to select, at the time of sentencing, either a firing squad or a lethal intravenous injection as the method of execution. If the defendant does not indicate a preference at that time to the court, the judgment of death shall be executed by lethal intravenous injection.

77-19-10 Judgment of death --Location and procedures for execution.

(1) The executive director of the Department of Corrections or his designee shall ensure that the method of judgment of death specified in the warrant is carried out at a secure correctional facility operated by the department at an hour determined by the department on the date specified in the warrant.

(2) If the judgment of death is to be carried out by shooting, the executive director of the department or his designee shall select a five-person firing squad of peace officers.

(3) If the judgment of death is to be carried out by lethal intravenous injection, the executive director of the department or his designee shall select two or more persons trained in accordance with accepted medical practices to administer intravenous injections, who shall each administer a continuous intravenous injection, one of which shall be of a lethal quantity of sodium thiopental or other equally or more effective substance sufficient to cause death. Death shall be certified by a physician.

(4) Compensation for members of a firing squad or persons administering intravenous injections shall be in an amount determined by the director of the Division of Finance.

(5) The department shall adopt and enforce rules governing procedures for the execution of judgments of death.

Articles on Utah's Firing Squads

Firing squad choices opposed - October 2, 2003

Utah Seeks End to FIring Squad - August 8, 2003

Utah Officials Look for Firing Squad - May 29, 2003

Firing squad choices opposed

The Utah Sentencing Commission decided Wednesday that a draft law abolishing the firing squad should also remove that option from 4 condemned killers who have already chosen to die in front of 5 rifles.

The decision to make the law retroactive was reached after lengthy debate that ended with an 11-6 vote. The Legislature will ultimately decide whether to change the law.

Commission members said making lethal injection Utah's sole execution method would immediately end the "media circus" that inevitably surrounds any firing squad execution.

The so-called Wild-West aspect of a shooting death attracts scores of journalists from around the world to Utah, members said, while focusing undue attention and undeserved sympathy on the condemned killer.

However, 4 of Utah's 11 death-row inmates who have already chosen to die by firing squad -- Roberto Arguelles, Troy Michael Kell, Ronald Lafferty and Ralph Menzies -- will almost certainly appeal if their choice of execution is abolished, said 2 legal experts who addressed the Commission on Wednesday.

The state would ultimately prevail in those additional legal battles, said Assistant Utah Attorneys General Frederic Voros and Thomas Brunker. And that could add years to the already decades-long appeals process.

"Delay is the name of the game in death-penalty cases," said Voros. "Anything that can be litigated will be litigated in these kinds of cases."

In an extreme example, Voros said, an inmate might argue that because he was entitled to a firing squad, he now "couldn't be executed at all."

Some commission members argued that enduring 4 more firing squad executions would be preferable to dragging out the appeals process.

"Endless appeals are a frustration for victims," said Board of Pardons and Parole Chairman Michael Sibbett. "If we tinker with these 4 individuals, no matter how slight . . . it will given them just one more damnable appeal option. It's one more wrinkle for a creative defense attorney to work with."

But commission member Edward McConkie, who is also executive director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, insisted abolition of the firing squad should be "retroactive, across the board, a bright line." Otherwise, he said, "it doesn't mean anything."

At present, condemned killers can choose firing squad or lethal injection at the time of their sentencing. If they decline to choose, the trial judge must order lethal injection.

2 months ago, the Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to abolish the firing squad.

But as member Paul Boyden said Wednesday: "We are not saying the firing squad is an embarrassment. It's as humane as any other method. Our concern is with the media circus, the abnormal attention drawn to Utah, the inmate's ability to jerk the system around and become a sympathetic figure."

Boyden, executive director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, expects the Legislature will thoroughly debate the whole issue.

"It's a tough one," he said. "You want to get rid of the media circus right away, but you risk building delay."

Last month, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responded to a commission inquiry by saying the church had no objection to elimination of the firing squad.

Commission members said they were concerned about erroneous notions that the Mormon church condones the doctrine of blood atonement, which calls for the shedding of blood to pay for grievous sins.

Utah remains the only state that still uses a firing squad. Idaho and Oklahoma retain the firing squad as a backup option in case lethal injection cannot be used for medical or legal reasons.

Of Utah's 50 executions, 40 have been carried out by firing squad, 6 by hanging (which was outlawed in 1983) and 3 by lethal injection, according to Weber State University criminologist L. Kay Gillespie, author of The Unforgiven: Utah's Executed Men.

A Utah firing squad employs 5 riflemen, 1 of whom fires a blank.

End to firing squads sought

A firing squad is a practical and efficient means of execution -- considering that 40 of Utah's 50 executions have been carried out by bullets.

But firing squads have also become "publicity magnets." Because they attract embarrassing worldwide attention, they may soon go the way of hanging, which was abolished in 1983.

The Utah Sentencing Commission pledged Wednesday to support legislation to eliminate the firing squad, leaving lethal injection as Utah's sole method of execution.

"I'd like [to] get completely out of the firing squad business," said commission member Gregory Orme, a Utah Appeals Court judge. "The blood-atonement intrigue only heightens the media circus. It's incredibly bad PR for Utah."

Blood atonement -- the concept of spilling blood to pay for grievous sins -- was taught by some early LDS Church leaders but has never been practiced by the church, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

Utah Board of Pardons Chairman Michael Sibbett said a firing squad invariably shifts the focus of news reporters away from the criminal, his crime and his victims, and onto the execution method.

"It's disheartening to read media accounts that totally ignore the victim . . . and why this individual's life is being taken by society," Sibbett said.

Sevier County Sheriff Phil Barney agreed: "We're making Jesse Jameses out of these people. We're making a hero out of some idiot that destroyed families."

Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, said the commission's support should give her legislative bill a good chance of being passed this time around.

"Their recommendation is very significant," Allen said after the commission's unanimous vote.

Allen tried and failed to end firing squads after the January 1996 firing squad execution of John Albert Taylor -- an event that drew nearly 150 television crews, including reporters from Italy, France and Japan.

The debate was revived this year in expectation of back-to-back June firing squad executions for 2 death-row inmates. Roberto Arguelles and Troy Michael Kell were scheduled to die within hours of each other on June 27 and 28, before their executions were stayed.

The potential of a double execution revived visions of the somber business of execution turned into a Wild West sideshow attraction. In the event Utah keeps the firing squad, Allen says, lawmakers at least should remove the condemneds' ability to choose their method of execution. She said it makes no sense to allow offenders to use the system to embarrass the state.

According to research by Sentencing Commission director Ron Gordon, 38 states authorize capital punishment. And 7, including Utah, offer more than 1 method of execution.

37 states offer lethal injection, 9 have electrocution, 4 offer lethal gas and 3 allow hanging.

Utah -- which first used a firing squad in 1861 -- remains the only state that actually uses a firing squad.

2 other states, Idaho and Oklahoma, retain the firing squad only as a backup option in the event lethal injection cannot be used for medical or legal reasons, according to Gordon.

Commission members discussed whether Utah should keep the firing squad as a backup. One concern is that drug-using inmates with collapsed veins could not be injected with fatal drugs.

But Katie Warner, law clerk for the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, said that has arisen only once, in a Texas case where the inmate ultimately did die by injection.

Several commission members said it was unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court would decide lethal injection was a more "cruel and unusual punishment" than more violent methods.

Commission members also wondered how abolishment of the firing squad would affect the 4 Utah inmates who have already chosen to die in front of 5 rifles. Any bill that is not applied retroactively could extend the use of firing squads for 10 to 15 years.

Sibbett emphasized that the commission was debating methods of execution, not the abolishment of capital punishment.

"Dead is dead," he said.

Of the 50 people officially executed in Utah since 1847, 40 died by firing squad, 6 by hanging and 4 by lethal injection, according to Weber State University criminologist L. Kay Gillespie, author of The Unforgiven: Utah's Executed Men.

(source: Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 7)

Utah Officials Look for Firing Squad

As it does now and again, Utah is looking for a few good marksmen.

A search for volunteers began early this month after a state judge signed death warrants for 2 convicted murderers who have requested death by firing squad. Utah is 1 of only 3 states, along with Idaho and Oklahoma, where execution by a team of riflemen is available as an alternative to lethal injection.

Of those 3, only Utah has made good on the option, and only Utah allows the condemned to make the decision. Oklahoma law allows use of a firing squad if lethal injection and electrocution are ever ruled unconstitutional, and Idaho can use a firing squad when lethal injection is found to be "impractical," a circumstance that has yet to present itself.

Seeking sharpshooters, the Utah Corrections Department has appealed to law enforcement agencies near the state prison in the town of Draper, just south of here, and in areas where the 2 men committed their crimes. "We've asked them to submit names of responsible people," said Jack Ford, a spokesman for the department. "It's standard practice."

2 of the 6 prisoners executed in Utah since the United States Supreme Court allowed reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976 have chosen to die in a hail of bullets from a team of state-sanctioned riflemen. The first was Gary Mark Gilmore, a career criminal turned murderer who in 1977 became the 1st person in the nation put to death after the Supreme Court decision. The 2nd was John Albert Taylor, who was executed in 1996 after raping and murdering a young girl.

Now the state, one of 38 that allow capital punishment, has received the same request from Troy Michael Kell, an avowed white supremacist who stabbed a black prison inmate to death in 1994, and Roberto Arguelles, who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting and killing three teenage girls and a 42-year-old woman in 1992.

Mr. Kell, whose execution date was set for June 27, would have been next, but he has undertaken appeals that are almost certain to delay his appearance before the firing squad for years. So it now appears that Mr. Arguelles will precede him into the death chamber, on June 28. Mr. Arguelles had until today to seek further review by a state trial court, but by the close of business this evening the court had recorded no such effort, though he retains a right of appeal to the federal courts.

Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said death-row inmates sought alternative means of execution for a variety of reasons, one of them to demonstrate what they deem the barbaric nature of capital punishment, especially in states like Utah that only rarely carry out the death penalty.

"They want to be on display," he said. "They want to show the state to be brutal and bloodthirsty, and raise questions about whether we're really comfortable with the death penalty. In a state like Texas, where so many executions occur, no one pays much attention. But in a state like Utah, this is front-page news, and it gets a lot of attention even though the end result is the same."

Mr. Kell requested a firing squad only because he did not like the idea that poison would otherwise be injected into his veins, said Stephen R. McCaughey, a lawyer who represented him for many years.

"It had nothing to do with his views of the death penalty," Mr. McCaughey said.

It could not be determined why Mr. Arguelles had chosen a firing squad. Expressing a desire to die, he has declined legal representation, and Mr. Ford, the corrections spokesman, said Mr. Arguelles had neither articulated a reason for his choice nor agreed to explain his outlook in any interviews.

In any event, the request of the 2 men has so far not caused much reaction in Utah, which has provided for the death penalty since its days as a territory. Back then, laws allowed for the condemned to be hanged, beheaded or shot, according to research by L. Kay Gillespie, chairman of the department of criminal justice at Weber State University, who has written extensively about Utah capital punishment.

Mr. Gillespie says beheading was never actually used and was dropped as an option in 1888, 8 years before statehood. But death by hanging and firing squad remained on the books until 1980, when lethal injection replaced hanging. Over the years, more than 40 men have been executed by Utah firing squads.

Sheryl L. Allen, a Republican state lawmaker who favors the death penalty, drafted a bill in 1996 that would have banned firing squads. But after failing to gain support from party leaders, she never introduced it, and no similar measure has been proposed since.

"It's a spectacle," Ms. Allen said of death by gunfire. "I don't know why we do it.

"I might try again, but if I do, I want to make sure I have strong support. It's a very unpleasant subject."

(source: New York Times)