The death penalty has been in the news quite a bit recently – Rachel reported last night, for example, on developments in Missouri – especially after a botched execution in Oklahoma helped renew a national debate over capital punishment by way of lethal injections.
The conversation has taken a few twists and turns.
In response to the state-sanctioned torture that occurred in Oklahoma a few weeks ago, a Utah lawmaker plans to introduce a proposal to bring back firing squads as a more humane option for the death penalty. He explained his logic on Hannity on Monday.
The Fox News host asked, “After what happened in Oklahoma, I mean, you’re not going to mess up a firing squad, right?”
State Rep. Paul Ray (R) replied, “The only mess-up we had was in 1897, and we’ve got it right every time since then.”
This, of course, leads to a series of questions, one of which is probably obvious: what in the world happened in 1897?
The Republican lawmaker was apparently referencing a Utah case in which a firing squad intended to execute Wallace Wilkerson, but the shooters apparently missed his heart. The suspected murderer, according to local reports from the time, took 27 minutes to die.
By some accounts, local law enforcement raised the possibility at the time of shooting Wilkerson again, since the first round didn’t go as intended, though the accused ultimately expired before that became necessary.
According to the Wikipedia page on the incident – which says the shooting was in 1879, not 1897 – Wilkerson’s ordeal “continues to be cited in present day case law involving cruel and unusual punishment.”
So when firing-squad proponents reference this as an example of a “mess-up,” they’re referencing a fairly important exception to the rule. Indeed, it offers some compelling evidence that firing on an unarmed man is not exactly a model for “humane” treatment of prisoners.
And what about the notion that Utah officials “got it right every time since then”? This might suggest that the state continues to rely on firing squads to execute Americans, but that’s not quite right, either.
Utah eliminated execution by firing squad in 2004, citing the excessive media attention it gave inmates. But those sentenced to death before that date still had the option of choosing it, which is how Gardner ended up standing in front of five armed Utah police officers. Gardner was sentenced to death for fatally shooting a Salt Lake City attorney in 1985 while trying to escape from a courthouse.He was third person to die by firing squad after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. A couple other death row inmates have opted to die by gunfire instead of lethal injection in Utah, but they are all several years away from exhausting the appeals of their death sentences, Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker said. Ray’s proposal would give all inmates the option.
As a variety of states have discovered of late, finding the chemicals necessary for a deadly lethal-injection cocktail is increasingly difficult. At a minimum, we have plenty of readily available bullets.
Clearing the “cruel and unusual” hurdle, though, will probably be more difficult.