Executions by firing squad are beneath this country’s dignity
South Carolina’s plan to carry out executions by firing squad was put on hold April 20 by the state supreme court, which granted temporary reprieves to two men who had elected that method under a state law requiring that condemned inmates choose either the firing squad or electrocution.
Forcing such a choice adds a sadistic element to execution’s cruelty and inhumanity. Being required to select a method of being killed is ghoulish and horrible.
As bad as the fact of choice is, the inclusion of the firing squad makes this legal requirement even worse. Execution by firing squad is beneath the dignity of any civilized nation.
Perhaps that is why execution by firing squad is so rare in the United States. In the last half- century almost 1,500 people have been put to death. Only three of them have been executed in this manner: Gary Gilmore, John Albert Taylor, and Ronnie Lee Gardner, the last in 2010.
All of them were executed in the state of Utah. Its use of the firing squad is said to reflect the Mormon faith’s belief in “blood atonement.”
Despite recent speculation about the pain experienced by people put to death by the firing squad and whether it is preferable to other execution methods, each use of it is a spectacle of cold-blooded killing.
Each of them calls on the people who do the shooting to act as cogs in the state’s machinery of death. And each is a disturbing reenactment of the kind of gun violence that plagues this country and brings unimaginable grief to thousands of families every year.
To fully sense the horror of what South Carolina seeks to do, one has only to revisit the three most recent uses of the firing squad.
The first was the execution of Gary Gilmore in 1977, only a few months after the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of America’s death penalty. Gilmore was put to death for two murders committed while out on parole after being imprisoned for assault and armed robbery. Unlike most death row inmates, Gilmore waived all legal appeals and insisted that Utah carry out his death sentence. His case became a media sensation both because of his desire to die and because of the method that would be used to kill him.
Gilmore thought execution by firing squad was a more “dignified” way to die than hanging.
In an unusually detailed account published the day after the execution, the New York Times reported that Gilmore was hooded, strapped into a chair, and had a target pinned over his heart. None of those things makes death by firing squad a dignified way to die.
Following Utah’s execution protocol, the members of the firing squad were volunteers. They willingly served the state by shooting an unarmed man from a distance of 20 feet. All were law enforcement officers drawn from the county in which Gilmore’s murders occurred. Four of their rifles were supposed to be loaded with live rounds. The fifth rifle should have had blank ammunition so that none of the shooters could know for certain whose shots actually would kill Gilmore.
Gilmore’s famous last words were “Let’s do it.”
After the execution, Gilmore’s brother Mikal said that he found five, not four, bullet holes in the shirt Gary wore to his execution. As he put it, “The state of Utah, apparently, had taken no chances on the morning that it put my brother to death.”
The Guardian reported that after the execution was completed “scores of journalists were given a tour of the site … (where they) … inspected the blood-stains (from) … the dead man.”
John Albert Taylor was next to be executed by firing squad in 1996. He was convicted and sentenced for committing rape and murder of a child.
If Gilmore thought of the firing squad as a dignified way to die, Taylor said he hoped that it would embarrass the state of Utah.
But the officers who participated in Taylor’s execution did not seem embarrassed at all. One “described it as an ‘assignment, nothing more than getting an order to do something like kicking in a door to serve a warrant.” Another said that Taylor’s execution was like “returning a defective product to the manufacturer.” A third admitted that he “had issues about shooting a guy strapped in a seat, helpless. But the state had ordered us to do this and we had a job to do.” He said that while he did not regret doing it, he “would never do it again.”
About 14 years after Taylor was shot to death, Utah did the same thing to Ronnie Lee Gardner. He had been sentenced for killing a man during an attempted escape from a courthouse in 1985.
In 2004, Utah lawmakers adopted lethal injection as its method of execution, but inmates like Gardner sentenced before then were given the choice of a firing squad. When a judge asked Gardner for his preference, he replied politely, “I would like the firing squad, please.”
Like Gilmore and Taylor, Gardner was strapped into a chair, hooded, and then shot by five volunteers. As ABC News described the execution, “The rifles exploded and four bullets perforated his heart and lungs. The straps held his head up. A metal tray beneath the chair collected his blood.” ABC quoted witnesses who said Gardner “fidgeted even after the barrage of gunfire.” One of them noted that “When he was shot, some of us weren’t sure if he had passed away because we could see movement. He had his fist clenched and we could see his elbow move up and down.” Another witness said she was troubled because Gardner did not seem to die quickly.
Executions by firing squad always mutilate the body and produce a bloody death.
Former Federal Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in 2014 that all executions “are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.”
Kozinski said that the firing squad had the virtue of not shielding “ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood. If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.”
It is long past time that Americans faced that reality and stopped pretending that execution ever can be humane. If South Carolina carries out the first execution by firing squad in more than a decade it indeed will be “committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.”
Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College and the author of “Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution.” Follow him on Twitter @ljstprof
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