Lawmakers in Utah’s House of Representatives voted narrowly on Friday to approve a bill that would reintroduce the use of firing squads for executions in the state.
After a short but contentious discussion, the House voted 39-34 in support of the proposal sponsored by Republican Representative Paul Ray of Clearfield that would allow the use of firing squads amid nationwide concerns about the efficacy of lethal injections.
The bill now faces a vote in the state Senate. Utah used firing squads for decades before adopting the use of lethal injections in 2004.
Ray told lawmakers that three states – Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona – had recently carried out lethal injection executions that led to inmates’ physical distress and more drawn-out deaths than are typical.
He said firing squads compared favorably: “With a firing squad, the individual dies within three to five seconds. It’s a quick bleed-out,” he said.
Lethal injections, on the other hand, first paralyze the person, and then “it takes a while to shut down the lungs and the kidneys, shuts down the heart. It’s definitely slower, and more painful,” he said.
Representative Brian King, a Salt Lake City Democrat, countered that death by firing squad was not always clean and straightforward.
“If not shot in the heart, the prisoner bleeds to death slowly,” King said, adding that members of firing squads must also learn to live with the “attendant psychological trauma of participating in a cold-blooded execution.”
Representative Sandra Hollins, also a Salt Lake City Democrat and the only African-American member of the Legislature, said she opposed the bill because she was against the death penalty.
“The death penalty disproportionately affects my community,” she said. “(It) also is not fairly given over social economic status, race or gender lines. It is fraught with error.”
Utah previously used firing squads, including in the execution of Gary Gilmore, a convicted murderer who in January 1977 became the first person to be put to death in the United States in 10 years, after insisting the sentence be carried out.
The previous year, the Supreme Court upheld various death penalty statutes, ending a hiatus stemming from a constitutional ban against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The last person to be executed in Utah by firing squad was Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010. Gardner murdered a lawyer inside a Salt Lake City courthouse in 1985.
(Reporting by Peg McEntee; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Beech)