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For fans of the death penalty, June is shaping up to be a banner month. As usual, executions are scheduled in Texas and Oklahoma. However, June is special because Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and Utah have all scheduled executions as well.
In fact, Utah, which has not executed anyone since 1996, has scheduled executions on consecutive days in June. Amazingly, both executions will take place using firing squads. Of course, you would think that, in 21st century America, executions by firing squad would have gone the way of break dancing and Geraldo Rivera’s career as a war correspondent.
However, in this case, both inmates chose to face a firing squad. When I first heard this story on the evening news, my question was, “What was their other option – crucifixion?” However, it turns out that both inmates could have chosen lethal injection instead.
However, both inmates are choosing to face a firing squad as a way of making a statement. That statement is “I’m nuts!” In fairness, it’s hard to be rational when faced with two equally horrendous choices. After all, asking a man to choose between lethal injection and a firing squad is like asking him to choose between being married to Leona Helmsley or Zsa Zsa Gabor. In either case, the only hope for the man is that he dies quickly.
That being the case, perhaps the real crazy people here are the Utah legislators who still allow for this outmoded form of execution. Of the 42 states that have the death penalty, only 3 states (Idaho, Oklahoma and Utah) allow for the use of a firing squad. However, in Idaho and Oklahoma, the firing squad is only used as a last-ditch effort.
For instance, in Idaho, lethal injection is the preferred method of execution and a firing squad will only be used when lethal injection is “impractical.” In other words, if all the doctors in Idaho (all six of them) are away at a doctor’s conference in the Bahamas, then the firing squad will be assembled.
Likewise, in Oklahoma, lethal injection is the preferred method of execution. However, the legislature has provided that if lethal injection and electrocution are ever ruled unconstitutional, then the firing squad will be called out. This is bizarre even by Oklahoma standards. I hate to be the one to break it to them but if lethal injection is ever ruled to be “cruel and unusual punishment,” then the firing squad doesn’t stand a chance.
Of course, the real question is why would any state still rely on a firing squad when there are more modern methods of execution like lethal injection, lethal gas or riding in a car driven by Rodney King? The firing squad is not only disturbing in principle but it’s even more disturbing in application.
For one, the shooters are not employees of the Utah Corrections Department. The shooters are police officers who volunteer for this duty. Now, I will admit that I don’t have the most exciting life but even I can think of something better to do on my day off. Whatever happened to gardening, spending a day at the beach with the family or just nursing a bad hangover?
Obviously, any police officer who would volunteer for this duty must feel that he isn’t getting enough “action” on the street. I’m not sure this is the kind of person we want stopping motorists on a dark highway at 3 a.m.
However, perhaps even more strange is that special safeguards are put into place to protect the volunteer shooters from possible remorse in the future. At the appointed time, five shooters simultaneously fire a single bullet at a target on the chest of the inmate. However, one of the guns is secretly loaded with a blank. As a result, no man can know for sure whether he fired the fatal bullet.
Now maybe it’s just me but I don’t get it. For one, these officers volunteered for the assignment. Second, we don’t take similar precautions for prison officials who “throw the switch” on the electric chair. We don’t set up several fake switches so that the real switch thrower isn’t traumatized for the life. I guess for $8.75 an hour you’re expected to live with a little remorse.
Perhaps it’s time for Utah to join the 37 other states that rely primarily on lethal injection (and terrible prison food) to kill inmates. The application of the death penalty is troubling enough already. There’s no need to add more fuel to the firing squad.
SEAN CARTER is a lawyer, comedian, public speaker and the author of If It Does Not Fit, Must You Acquit? Your Humorous Guide to the Law. He can be reached at www.lawpsided.com.