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Is death by firing squad really instantaneous? Not necessarily

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Executions by firing squad are back on the books in Utah. Governor Gary Herbert signed a law that authorizes the method if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. The move comes amidst a nationwide shortage of such drugs.

    To discuss how the new law would work and other states eying similar moves, we are joined by Jennifer Dobner. She's justice reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune. And Andrew Novak, he teaches international criminal justice at George Mason University and has authored several books on the death penalty.

    And we welcome you both to the NewsHour.

    So, Jennifer Dobner, to you first.

    Why did the Utah legislature pass this new law and why has the governor signed it?

  • JENNIFER DOBNER, The Salt Lake Tribune:

    Well, like other states, Utah is recognizing that it's difficult now to get the drugs needed for lethal injection, and also that there have been problems with lethal injection elsewhere.

    So I think they have wanted to put something on the books that would allow them to reinstate the use of the firing squad, should it become necessary. It's been a secondary use for capital punishment since 2004, but this sort of adds a new condition under which it could be used.

    Previously, we were at a default to lethal injection, unless — unless that had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, in this instance, though, as I understand it, if the drugs are not available for 30 days, then the state would resort to the use of the firing squad.

  • JENNIFER DOBNER:

    That's correct.

    And, currently, the state doesn't have any drugs in its possession, so if an execution was imminent and we couldn't obtain them, then we would default to the firing squad.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Jennifer Dobner, tell us just briefly how this works, how it's worked in the past in Utah.

  • JENNIFER DOBNER:

    Well, I witnessed the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010.

    And it's carried out by a team of five marksmen. They use a matched set of.30-caliber Winchester rifles. And the condemned sits in a black metal chair about 25 feet from a wall that has a gun port in it. The rifles are handed out randomly to the team of shooters.

    And those folks, I should say, are, by statute, anonymous. And then there's a cadence countdown to a moment when they all fire. The condemned is strapped into a chair. A hood is placed over their head, if they choose.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We understand that it's only law enforcement officers who can be part of the firing squad.

  • JENNIFER DOBNER:

    That's correct.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And is it — it is the case that they're all given bullets, but one of them is given a blank; is that right?

  • JENNIFER DOBNER:

    Yes, there's four live rounds and one blank. And the rifles are handed out sort of in random order, so no one knows who is getting the live round and who is getting the blank.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Andrew Novak, we know there are 32 states where the death penalty is legal. We know that Utah would become the only state, along with Oklahoma, where the backup method would be a firing squad.

    Two other states, New Hampshire, Washington State, have hanging as a backup. And then there are five more states that use the electric chair as the backup, in addition to Oklahoma, where I guess it's either/or.

    Why is there so much concern about these lethal injections?

  • ANDREW NOVAK, George Mason University:

    Sure.

    And I think that — so, lethal injection has shown itself to be, for a lot of reasons, the most commonly used form of execution in the United States. But with the shortage of drugs from the pharmaceuticals and their distributors, we're seeing some states take a second look at their method of execution.

    And that also includes the gas chamber that's — the gas chamber bill that is proceeding in Oklahoma. But all of these methods of execution have got their concerns. They're not 100 percent reliable.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The backup methods, the firing squad and hanging.

  • ANDREW NOVAK:

    Right.

    So, lethal injection, we have seen some cases botched in the last year or two…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • ANDREW NOVAK:

    … as states experiment with new cocktails to make up for the drugs that they can't find, elsewhere.

    But hanging and firing squad and electric chair, these all have risks too. And in the case of a firing squad, if that target is off just a little bit, you could have an execution that's not instantaneous.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Why do you think more states haven't resorted to the firing squad, which I think many people didn't even realize that it was still a possibility?

  • ANDREW NOVAK:

    Sure.

    Well, there is some concern. I think, as a cultural matter, we in the United States, we perceive of our methods of execution as being humane, as being sort of medical procedures, as being the sanitized process, like you would do with assisted suicide or a pet that needs to be euthanized.

    The firing squad is fundamentally violent. It uses force to kill. And even if it's not necessarily more painful as an objective matter, it is more violent. And it strikes us as kind of a reversal or a backward trend from this process.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Jennifer Dobner, one other question.

    What do the people of — in the state of Utah think about the death penalty, about the firing squad?

  • JENNIFER DOBNER:

    Well, this is a very conservative place. And we have always been very pro-death penalty. So I don't know that there is great surprise that this is back on the books, so to speak.

    I was sort of struck, though, by the votes in both the House and the Senate. They were not as close in favor of reinstating this method. And so that shows perhaps some shift in public opinion. I mean, certainly, there are those in the community who are opposed to the death penalty at all. And we heard from those people as this process moved through the legislature. But I'm not surprised that it was reinstated.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Jennifer Dobner with The Salt Lake Tribune and Professor Andrew Novak with George Mason University, we thank you.

  • ANDREW NOVAK:

    Great. Thank you.

  • JENNIFER DOBNER:

    Thank you.

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