State Legislators Go Back to Tried and True Execution Methods

Utah firing squads are locked and loaded, while electric chairs could soon be plugged back into the outlets in Alabama prisons.

The Alabama state House and the Utah Legislature want to be sure when a judge issues a death sentence their departments of correction are ready to end the lives of people deemed to be so heinous that they must be put out of society’s misery.

Alabama and Utah have relied on lethal injections to put down those convicted of capital crimes. But like all states that rely on the needle, they are running out of the drugs needed to mix the judicial system’s final cocktail.

Even if the drugs magically become available, the practice of using lethal injections might be deemed “cruel and unusual punishment” by the U.S. Supreme Court.

So both legislative bodies have approved legislation that amounts to a Plan B.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed legislation March 23 that would make death by firing squad his state’s backup plan when it comes time to do away with people convicted of capital offenses.

“Our state accepts capital punishment,” Marty Carpenter, a spokesman for Gov. Herbert, told PJM. “And when a judge signs the execution order, the state has a duty to carry out that order.”

Anna Brower, an American Civil Liberties Union public policy advocate, said the firing squad legislation made Utah look “backward and brutal.”

However, killing by firing squad those convicted of killing is more than the state’s duty according to Rep. Paul Ray (R), the Utah legislator who introduced the firing squad proposal in November 2014.

"It sounds like the Wild West, but it's probably the most humane way to kill somebody," Ray told the Associated Press. "It sounds draconian. It sounds really bad, but the minute the bullet hits your heart, you're dead. There's no suffering.”

Randy Gardner, the brother of the last man to be executed by firing squad in Utah, believes death by bullet is anything but humane.

"When you take somebody and you tie them to a chair, put a hood over their head, and you shoot them from 25 feet with four rifles pointed at their heart, that's pretty barbaric,” he said.

But that is the way Ronnie Lee Gardner wanted it. He threatened to sue Utah in 1996 if it didn’t allow him to choose the firing squad for his execution.

His wish was granted in 2010.

Alabama might join Utah in going back to a method of execution that has worked before, albeit not always smoothly, by reviving death by electric chair as its alternative to lethal injections.

As troubled as Randy Gardner was by the way his brother died, Alabama’s history with the “chair” has been even more gruesome.

The 1983 execution of John Evans in Alabama, as documented by Prof. Michael L. Radelet at the University of Colorado for the Death Penalty Information Center,  did not go well.

“After the first jolt of electricity, sparks and flames erupted from the electrode attached to Evans's leg. The electrode burst from the strap holding it in place and caught on fire. Smoke and sparks also came out from under the hood in the vicinity of Evans's left temple,” Radelet wrote.

“Two physicians entered the chamber and found a heartbeat. The electrode was reattached to his leg, and another jolt of electricity was applied. This resulted in more smoke and burning flesh. Again the doctors found a heartbeat. Ignoring the pleas of Evans's lawyer, a third jolt of electricity was applied. The execution took 14 minutes and left Evans's body charred and smoldering.”

The execution of Horace Franklin Dunkins Jr. in Alabama six years later didn’t go any smoother.

“After the first jolt failed to kill the prisoner (who was mildly retarded), the captain of the prison guard opened the door to the witness room and stated ‘I believe we've got the jacks on wrong,’” wrote Radelet.

Nineteen minutes and a second jolt of electricity later, after the cables were connected properly, Dunkins was dead. At a post-execution news conference, Alabama Prison Commissioner Morris Thigpen said, “I regret very, very much what happened. [The cause] was human error.”

Still, the sponsor of legislation to plug in the electric chair again, Rep. Lynn Greer (R), said it is just “common sense” to have an alternative to lethal injections ready to go.

“The system we have today may be working for criminals, but it is not working for the victims,” Greer said during House debate.

Democrats voiced their objections to the electric chair legislation specifically, and to the death penalty in general.

However, the switch will stay in the “off” position until the U.S. Supreme Court rules whether Alabama’s method of lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.

A federal judge ordered Alabama officials to stop executions pending the Supreme Court’s ruling on March 19, the same day that one of seven convicted killers on Alabama’s Death Row was scheduled to get the needle.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide whether lethal injections are unconstitutional by the end of June.