Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill into law allowing the use of firing squads for executions if lethal injection drugs can’t be obtained.
“Those who voiced opposition to this bill are primarily arguing against capital punishment in general and that decision has already been made in our state,” said Herbert spokesman Marty Carpenter.
But opposition to the new law remains vocal.
“Other conservative states are considering repeal, and with this bill Utah is stepping back in time,” said Marina Lowe, a spokeswoman for the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Utah is now one of two states that allows execution by firing squad, and it is the only state to have used the method since executions resumed in the U.S. in 1977. Oklahoma is the other state, but it hasn’t performed one since executions were reestablished — while Utah has used the method three times.
“States are in a strange bind as far as execution methods go,” said Frank Baumgartner, a professor of political science at UNC. “Regulations in place require them to use certain drugs in a certain order during lethal injections, and the supply of these drugs simply doesn’t meet demand.”
The primary argument for using lethal injections has been that executions should be performed in the most humane way possible. Given the shortage of the drugs, states are faced with the question of how to humanely execute death row inmates.
Still, Baumgartner and Lowe both said the new law and the larger issue of the death penalty are more symbols than anything else.
“The sponsors of the bill sold it to the legislature based on the idea that this is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible, but that sense of urgency really isn’t present in the state,” said Lowe.
“When you consider how many homicides there are in a given year in the U.S., and that we’ve never executed more than 100 people in a year, it’s clear the death penalty is a statement,” said Baumgartner.
While the Utah ACLU has no constitutional concerns about the legality of firing squads, Lowe said they will continue to express their concerns about the death penalty as a whole and how justice is dispensed in the U.S.
“There are ways to mete out justice that are far more constitutionally and fiscally sound,” said Lowe. “The fact remains that it is not possible to humanely take a human life.”
A statement from Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty argued that the use of firing squads would create media frenzy and damage Utah’s reputation of moral leadership, bringing condemnation from the national and international media.
“The passage of the bill sends a bad message about Utah,” Lowe said. “It’s an embarrassment.”