SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker is getting national and international attention for a bill that brings back the firing squad for use on death row inmates.
The bill, approved by the Legislature on Tuesday, gives the state the option to use firing squad when the lethal injection drug cocktail is not available 30 or more days before the death warrant is issued.
"If I were having to choose between the two, I would choose the firing squad because I know it's going to be over a lot quicker," Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who sponsored HB11, told the Deseret News on Wednesday. He calls the new law a "small policy change" to existing statute.
Ray said lethal injection remains the main method of execution in Utah, and firing squad is a backup option to carry out the death penalty requirement.
"Any time you have to take a human life, it's a very serious issue, but justice in our case requires that in certain instances," he said, adding that a firing squad is more humane because it produces results much more quickly.
The backlash Ray has been getting recently, including from international news outlets, he said, has been mostly for his support of the death penalty and not for his current legislation.
Randy Gardner, brother of Ronnie Lee Gardner who was executed in 2010, spoke in opposition to the bill mid-process and again Wednesday.
Randy Gardner, of Salt Lake City, said his brother selected a firing squad after much research on various execution methods, ultimately deciding it was "less painful and quicker."
"But he knew it would draw worldwide attention on the death penalty," he said.
Randy Gardner said he vowed he would continue to advocate against the death penalty to avenge his brother's death.
"I don't think it's right to kill another human being," he said. "I never condoned what my brother did, and I don't condone what they did to my brother. Two wrongs don't make a right."
Ray said he wishes Ronnie Lee Gardner would have chosen instead "to make a statement about that what he did was wrong and that there needed to be a penalty for what he did."
"The guy was a barbaric monster," he said. "I don't care why he chose (firing squad). The fact is we were able to provide justice to those families."
Randy Gardner holds to his belief that the firing squad is "cruel and inhumane." He described seeing four deep holes in his brother's chest after the execution and said he "couldn't imagine what his back must have looked like."
He said lawmakers should direct their energies to "at least talking about abolishing the death penalty" in Utah.
Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, has said he will look into legislation on the matter in the upcoming interim session.
Utah did away with the firing squad with HB180 in 2004, but three of the state's nine male death row inmates have already selected firing squad as their execution method, which will be carried out in time.
One inmate has yet to choose, but firing squad remains one of his options.
Of the 51 people executed under the death penalty in Utah since 1854 when it was instated, five were hanged, 42 were killed by firing squad, and four died by lethal injection. Executioners in 1879 missed convicted murderer Wallace Wilkerson's heart, leading to a not-so-sudden death.
The four lethal injections performed in Utah, however, have been carried out successfully.
Ethics standards prohibit physicians and medical personnel from participating in lethal injection executions, which has led to many botched killings in the country, as prison personnel end up delivering the three-drug combination intravenously.
The medications, including sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, have become unavailable in the United States, and overseas manufacturers have prevented the drugs from being sold to correctional facilities in the states.
Other states are also looking into alternative methods for planned executions.
Tennessee last year legalized the electric chair as an option when lethal injection drugs are not available, and Oklahoma lawmakers are considering using a gas chamber of sorts. Pennsylvania, however, has placed a ban on killing its death row inmates until available options can be further examined.
The increasing number of botched executions and unavailability of the drugs, Ray said, prompted him to begin investigating the alternative legislation. He said the use of other drugs would lead to lengthy court battles involving millions of taxpayer dollars.
Ray said the longer he has studied options, the more determined he's become.
"If anything, it has strengthened my belief in the death penalty," he said. "The victims did not get to choose how they went. Their killers didn't care how humane it was."
HB11 now heads to the governor for his consideration.
Utah law already includes a provision that would legalize the firing squad on the occasion that lethal injection is found to be unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on the matter later this year, on claims that the system has failed.
Sometimes, too, after years on death row, accused criminals have been found to be innocent. And also on occasion, they claim to be changed, sincerely repentant and contrite or to have turned to God or religion.
To that, Ray said, "I think it is easy to find Jesus when you know you're going to face him shortly."
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