Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ready, aim ... firing-squad execution awaits

On Friday, barring any clemency in the next few days, Utah killer Ronnie Lee Gardner will be executed. That's not especially noteworthy except that Gardner chose to be killed by a firing squad (he was sentenced before 2004, when lethal injection became Utah’s default execution method. His other choice was hanging.)

The same old debate about capital punishment is, of course, unfolding. Let it. As with all hijacked conversations in our hollering society, it ignores a large majority that can see times when the death penalty is appropriate and times when it is not. We've heard all the radicals' talking points before, ad nauseam.

What we haven't heard very often is the sound of gunfire in the death house. Firing squads date back to the invention of guns, but only two killers have actually been legally and officially shot to death in the United States, in 1977 (Gary Gilmore) and 1996 (John Taylor). It's not a default method anywhere, but remains an option for condemned inmates in Utah, Idaho and Oklahoma.

Gardner chose the firing squad because it was "easier" and maybe quicker. The process is cloaked in some secrecy, but in the past five sharpshooting volunteers from law enforcement agencies are chosen. The condemned man is strapped in a backless chair, wearing a hood and a target over his heart. The squad is set up on a sturdy firing platform 20 feet away. On a command, they fire simultaneously. One of the shooters' .30-caliber rifles is loaded with a blank cartridge so that any one of the five might reasonably surmise he didn't fire the fatal shot.

Is it cruel? If you radically oppose capital punishment, even lethal injection is cruel. If you radically support capital punishment, it isn't cruel enough. There have been difficulties with all methods (although not with firing squads in the USA because they are used so rarely). But should four bullets not shatter a human heart as expected, an alternate shooter stands by to administer the coup de grace.

Some have argued that firing squads offer a soldier's death, and that hanging more befits common criminals. Opponents say it is a grotesque, "old style" method that's needlessly cruel and messy; proponents say it is swifter and surer than lethal injection, and therefore less cruel.

What are your thoughts about firing squads as a method for carrying out the public's promise to killers? Better or worse than other methods we've used for more than 200 years?

Journalist Ron Franscell is the author of the upcoming DELIVERED FROM EVIL, an extraordinary study of 10 survivors of American mass murderers and serial killers. It will be released in January.