Return of firing squads shows death penalty and its ‘machinery’ are grinding to a halt

Firing squad execution chamber in Utah State Prison, on June 18, 2010, in Draper, Utah. (Photo: Trent Nelson/AP)

South Carolina’s governor just signed a law adding the firing squad to the state’s arsenal of execution methods. It requires inmates on death row to choose the firing squad or the electric chair (long an alternative in South Carolina) if lethal injection drugs are not available. 

Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah are the only other states that authorize use of the firing squad as a means to put someone to death. South Carolina has not executed anyone since 2011, but it now has 37 men on death row. Three of them have exhausted all appeals.

This revival of a previously discredited execution method shows the lengths to which death penalty supporters will go to keep the machinery of death running. Yet, at a time when support for the death penalty is waning in the United States, their turn to firing squads signals the weakness of America’s death penalty, not its strength.

Reviving firing squads shatters the illusion of technological progress in the business of putting people to death that has long played a key role in maintaining capital punishment’s legitimacy.

Hunting humane execution methods

While most nations that still use capital punishment employ only a single method of execution, over the last century the United States has added one method to another. Throughout most of American history, hanging was the most common method used to put people to death. That began to change in the early twentieth century with the introduction of the electric chair and the gas chamber. In the early 1980s, America turned to lethal injection as its preferred execution method.

Neither our laws nor our Constitution has prompted these developments. In fact, while a few state courts have struck down one of their state’s methods of execution, the United States Supreme Court has never imposed a nationwide ban on any method of execution. Dating back to the late 19th century, it has approved the firing squad, the electric chair and lethal injection, while other federal appellate courts have sanctioned hanging.

With the introduction of each new execution method, proponents confidently made the same claim, namely that the method would make execution safer, more reliable and more humane than the method used previously.

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Echoes of such claims were heard in the South Carolina legislative debate when State Sen. Richard Harpootlian, the bill’s chief sponsor, argued that death by firing squad is “the least painful” way to die. Typically, the condemned is hooded and strapped to a chair; a white cloth is pinned over the heart. Five (or sometimes eight) shooters line up, with between one and three of them firing blanks. All shooters shoot simultaneously, aiming at the heart.

Even some opponents of the death penalty occasionally repeat Harpootlian’s view, among them Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In 2017, she saidthat of all the available options, the firing squad might well be the most humane. “In addition to being near instant,” she wrote, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless. 

South Carolina's electric chair in Columbia, S.C. (Photo: Kinard Lisbon, AP)

Harpootlian picked up this theme when he contrasted the firing squad with the electric chair. “It’s an extraordinarily gruesome, horrendous process,” he said of electrocution, “where they essentially catch on fire and don’t die immediately.”

Executions by firing squad have been quite rare in this country, with the last one occurring more than a decade ago in Utah. That state adopted the firing squad in the middle of the 19th century, reflecting the Mormon belief in “blood atonement” – the idea that a murderer must shed his blood to be forgiven by God. 

Over the last century and a quarter, 34 people have been executed that way. In that same period of time, there have been more than 500 uses of the gas chamber, more than 1,000 executions by lethal injection, 2,700 hangings, and 4,000 electrocutions. 

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Since the 1970s, only three of America’s 1,532 executions have been carried out by a firing squad. The first of these occurred in 1977 when Gary Gilmore, who gained international notoriety when he demanded the implementation of the death sentence handed down after he committed two murders, chose that method over hanging.

Nineteen years later, John Albert Taylor wanted to be executed by the firing squad “to make a statement that Utah was sanctioning murder” and because he did not want to “flop around ‘like a dying fish’” during a lethal injection.

The last of these modern deaths by firing squad occurred in 2010 when Ronnie Lee Gardner told a Utah court: “I would like the firing squad, please.” “I like the firing squad,” Gardner said. “It’s so much easier … and there’s no mistakes.” 

Firing squad is a gruesome death

The bravado of the condemned should not mislead us. Nor should the claims that the firing squad is reliable and humane. History shows that the firing squad has a checkered past.

In 1878, in an appeal heard by the US Supreme Court, Wallace Wilkerson claimed that it violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Wilkerson lost his appeal, and his execution was subsequently botched when the marksmen missed his heart.

As law professor Phyliss Goldfarb observes, death by firing squad is always gruesome. “The condemned dies from blood loss and loses consciousness when blood supplied to the brain drops precipitously. Even when the people in the firing squad hit their target as intended, it may take at least a couple of minutes for the condemned to die and sometimes much longer.”

Even Utah, the state with the greatest attachment to this method of execution, gave it up in 2004 (although only temporarily) because it evoked images of raw, frontier justice. 

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Today, only 9% of the American people think that the firing squad is a humane method of execution. As a result, its revival in South Carolina will only add momentum to the abolitionist cause.

In a country awash in gun violence, the firing squad cruelly perpetuates what the law wishes to discourage. In fact, unlike lethal injection, which mimics a medical procedure, this method of execution makes the violence of the death penalty transparent.

Its revival is just the latest sign that the United States cannot resolve the ongoing conflict between modern notions of humaneness and continuation of capital punishment. The time has come for this country to abandon that effort and, as Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun put it, “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” 

Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College, is the author of “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.” Follow him on Twitter: @ljstprof

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