James Werrell

In search of the painless execution

Death by firing squad is noisy but usually quick.

Execution by firing squad has been common in the military through much of history (before guns, archers carried out the sentence). But firing squads are rarer in civilian cases.

Utah, however, has been an exception. The state has allowed firing squads as an option for executions off and on for decades, and just this year reinstated the practice as an alternative when drugs for lethal injection are not available. Oklahoma has instituted the same policy, and the South Carolina Legislature is considering a bill that would add firing squads to the legal alternatives to lethal injection, along with electrocution.

Utah was the site of the last three executions carried out by firing squads: Gary Gilmore in 1977; John Albert Taylor in 1996; and Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010. Gardner chose a firing squad over lethal injection.

In each of these cases, the prisoner was bound to a chair with leather straps across his head and waist. Sandbags were stacked on either side of the chair to absorb blood. The prisoner was hooded or blindfolded, and a target was placed over his heart.

The firing squad traditionally consists of marksmen, often law enforcement officers or military personnel. Utah officials say they never have had a shortage of volunteers.

The shooters are stationed 20 feet from the prisoner and armed with .30 caliber rifles, each with a single round. One of the rounds is a blank – the so-called “conscience round” – so that members of the firing squad can comfort themselves with the uncertainty of who fired the fatal shots.

Doctors who have monitored firing-squad executions say that when the bullets hit the heart, its electrical activity ceases within 30 seconds, and brain death follows soon after that. The only other method that quick is the guillotine, which also gets the job done in a matter of seconds.

Much of America’s history of capital punishment seems to consist of a search for more “humane” ways to put people to death. And humane, in this usage, seems to be code for more efficient, less messy.

Hanging was the primary method of execution in the U.S. until nearly the end of the 19th century. Delaware and Washington still hang people, with lethal injection as a backup.

But hanging can be problematic. If the rope is too long or if the person to be hanged is too heavy, the head will detach from the body. But if the rope is too short or too stretchy, the prisoner can hang for minutes, slowly strangling. The calculation has to be just right.

Modern Americans must have believed that science had come to the rescue in 1890 when the first electric chair was built in New York. A couple of quick jolts of 1,800-volt current must have seemed a neat, clean way to dispatch people sentenced to death.

Unfortunately the popular term of “frying” people was a bit too literal. Prisoners, with electrodes attached to their legs and heads, had a tendency to sizzle and then burst into flames while strapped in the electric chair. Their eyeballs often popped out, coming to rest on their cheeks.

And sometimes a jolt or two was not enough. It took nearly 20 minutes to kill one prisoner in Indiana who endured five cycles of electricity.

The gas chamber was the next innovation. But it was used for only 11 executions between 1979 and 1999 because it, too, turned out to somewhat unreliable, making executions difficult for witnesses to watch. Prisoners could gag and choke, gasping for air, for 10 minutes or longer until they expired.

Lethal injection is the latest approach to executing prisoners humanely. Ideally, a short-acting anesthesia renders the prisoner unconscious while a deadly dose of drugs that induce paralysis of the entire muscular system is administered, which stops the prisoner’s breathing.

But the process has been botched scores of times. In some cases, those injecting the drugs can’t find a vein for the needle. Sometimes prisoners have allergic reactions to the anesthesia, complaining of a painful internal burning sensation.

In one terrible scenario, the anesthesia failed to knock out the prisoner and he was conscious during the entire execution. In recent months, some states have suffered shortages of the drugs used in the executions and have experimented with other drugs. In Arizona a man remained alive for nearly two hours after being injected with a drug the state hadn’t used before.

One reason for the drug shortage is that nations where the drugs are manufactured, many of which have no death penalty, have refused to sell the drugs to states if they are to be used in executions. That has sent states scampering for other sources or for a new class of drugs to use.

In addition to considering firing squads as an alternative, South Carolina is debating a bill that would protect the identity of any pharmacist or company that provides execution drugs. This supposedly would help keep the supply of drugs flowing.

And if not, the Palmetto State could fall back on firing squads. It will always have an ample supply of guns.

While this issue involves life and death, it also has the characteristics of farce. The idea of trying to find humane ways to kill people is ludicrous on its face.

Most Americans have a visceral aversion to the beheadings committed by the Islamic State terrorists. But we’re a bit more comfortable with the guillotine or the hooded executioners like the one who lopped of Anne Boleyn’s head with an ax.

Firing squads seem barbaric to some, while others cringe at the notion of bodies twitching in a noose. Even with lethal injection, we have not managed to sanitize executions to the point that they are quick, completely painless and easy for us to ignore.

What are we to do? Well, there is one simple, surefire solution: Ban the death penalty.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.