Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
May 22, 2014
In early April, Rodger Jones of the Dallas Morning News did a Q&A with New York Law School professor Robert Blecker regarding the death penalty. When asked about lethal injection Blecker, a staunch supporter of capital punishment, replied, “I once witnessed an execution … I too, oppose lethal injection, not because it possibly causes pain, but because it certainly causes confusion—conflating medicine with punishment.” When asked what method of execution he would suggest, his answer was, “I prefer the firing squad.”
Within weeks of that interview, Oklahoma was set to execute two men by lethal injection within two hours of each other. However, the first execution was halted when the prisoner, Clayton D. Lockett, began to twitch and gasp after he had already been declared unconscious, and called out “man” and “something’s wrong,” according to the New York Times. He died of a heart attack an hour later.
In the wake of Oklahoma’s botched execution, Blecker’s preferred method of execution is gaining some traction.
A Utah state representative, Paul Ray, recently told the Christian Science Monitor that he’ll introduce legislation next year to make the firing squad the default method of execution in his state. Similar bills stalled in Wyoming and Missouri earlier this year, but the Utah bill might have a chance. After all, Utah is the only state to use a firing squad in the modern era of the death penalty.
In my book, “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010,” I examined the last execution by firing squad in the United States. Ronnie Lee Gardner died strapped in a chair, a hood over his head and a white target over his heart at the Utah State Prison in Draper. It was June 18, 2010, and five rifles — four loaded with a shell and one with a blank — were fired at his chest.
Gardner had asked to be executed by firing squad. At the time, Idaho, Utah and Oklahoma permitted offenders to request execution by firing squad.
Gardner was the third man to die by firing squad in Utah since the U.S. Supreme Court reauthorized the death penalty. Unlike Gary Gilmore, who infamously uttered the last words “Let’s do it” on January17, 1977, Gardner could muster few words before a black hood was fastened over his head. Asked if he had anything to say during the two minutes afforded him, Gardner said simply, “I do not, no.”
Gardner had fasted for 48 hours before his execution. He drank only vitamin water and soft drinks. Gardner ate his last meal two nights before his execution—a feast of steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and a 7UP.
The five executioners, certified police officers who volunteered for the task and remained anonymous, stood about 25 feet away, behind a wall cut with small opening, and each was armed with a .30-caliber Winchester rifle. Sandbags stacked behind Gardner’s chair kept the bullets from ricocheting around the execution chamber, reported the Huffington Post.
Deborah W. Denno, a law professor at Fordham University and an expert on the death penalty told the New York Times the most humane way to carry out the death penalty is through the use of a firing squad.
Denno said the firing squad is quick, effective and affordable. “It’s the most humane procedure,” Denno said. “It’s only because of this Wild West notion that people are against it.”
Maybe quick and effective is not always the goal. Austin Sarat recently wrote in the Boston Globe about the Florida Attorney General who — in 1997 after a botched electric chair execution caused the inmate to catch on a fire — warned: “People who wish to commit murder better not be doing it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair.”
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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