In late February, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the request by Thomas Arthur, an Alabama death-row prisoner who wanted the state to fatally shoot him rather than subject him to the likelihood of a painful death from secret, experimental lethal-injection drugs.
But Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor excoriated her colleagues for tacitly endorsing execution methods that could reasonably be considered as cruel or inhumane – and she pointed to firing squads as the way to go, reported US News and World Report.
"Some might find this choice regressive, but the available evidence suggests that a competently performed shooting may cause nearly instant death," Sotomayor wrote in a blistering dissent. "In addition to being near instant, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless. And historically, the firing squad has yielded significantly fewer botched executions."
Death penalty opponents, however, say firing squads aren't fail-safe, the condemned don't always die immediately and the procedure smacks of tin-horn dictatorships, undermining America's global standing as a champion of human rights. That states are looking to salvage the practice, they say, is yet another sign that capital punishment is on its way out.
"I think that the death penalty is in big trouble in the United States," says Austin Sarat, an associate dean and law and political science professor at Amherst College.
"The legitimacy of capital punishment has been sustained in part by the belief that we could find a way of execution that would be safe, reliable and sane," says Sarat, the author of "Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty." He notes the same arguments officials are making for the firing squad – it's quick, it's humane, it's reliable – were the same ones proponents used for lethal injections as its more clinical, civilized replacement.
I wrote about the last execution in this country by firing squad in my book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010. In June of 2010, Utah prison guards strapped convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner into a heavy steel chair flanked by black sandbags, securing his head in a halo brace. A doctor put a stethoscope to Gardner's chest, then fastened a small target over the condemned man's heart.
Minutes later, five marksmen, identities unknown, trained their Winchester rifles on Gardner from 25 yards, then opened fire on the executioner's command. The fusillade exploded through the hooded inmate's torso, killing him almost instantly.
Gardner was the most recent U.S. prisoner to die by firing squad, a method of death once considered too brutal and offensive for civilized American society. But he might not be the last.
The anonymous sharpshooters who killed Gardner came from a volunteer pool of trained law-enforcement officers; those from the area where the crime happened are preferred. Authorities say prison officials typically get more volunteers than they need,, and Gardner's execution was no exception.
Before he was strapped to the steel chair, the five officers on the squad loaded one round into their state-issued rifles. One random cartridge is blank, so no officer is entirely sure if he or she fired a fatal round.
Though Utah had banned firing squads in 2004, lawmakers voted to bring back the procedure in 2015, their response to the shortage of death-penalty drugs. But Goldfarb says if authorities want to be absolutely certain that an inmate dies instantly without pain or suffering, they can choose another target on the body.
"Firing a gun at point blank range into the head" is 100 percent effective, and "would cause a near-instantaneous death. But it would be exceedingly violent and destructive," Goldfarb writes. "But could we ask someone to inflict that kind of violence on another as part of their job as a state employee? If the state were to authorize such a gruesome spectacle in the name of law, how could we maintain our standing in the world as a protector of human rights?"
Still, she predicts the firing squad debate could go far in the current law-and-order climate ushered in with President Donald Trump's inauguration.
"I see the present moment as one in which fair debate based on factual evidence is being threatened and 'fear of the other' who would use violence to harm 'us' is being fanned for political gain," she writes. "These are the emotional conditions that have allowed the death penalty to persist in America – providing a simple answer to a complex problem."
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