Gov. Gary Herbert’s signing of HB11, which reinstates the firing squad, represents the acceptance of a misleading sales pitch to Utah voters. That bill was neither needed nor based on sound policy reasons. It will cost taxpayers millions of dollars while doing nothing to deter crime. More importantly, the bill diminishes Utah’s moral standing in the nation and in the world as reflected by the near unanimous rejection of the firing squad. Its time has come and gone.
Despite supporters’ claims, re-implementing the firing squad is based on false premises. By even supporters’ estimates, an execution could not possibly occur for another four years, and likely much longer. Regardless, several other states are litigating lethal injection protocols now. That litigation will sort out the legality of how executions are conducted. Until that litigation is resolved, no urgency exists.
Further contrary to supporters’ claims, HB11 is not a simple housekeeping measure that will protect the state from protracted litigation. Legislators who have spoken in favor of the measure claim that the firing squad simply creates a contingency plan should drugs used for executions become unavailable. The fallacy in this argument is the false assumption that the firing squad would not be subject to legal attack and would, therefore, spare the state from litigation costs. The reintroduction of the firing squad would do just the opposite.
Under United States Supreme Court precedent, the death penalty is subject to “evolving standards of decency” as determined by common practices by the states. Only one other state (Oklahoma) relies on the firing squad in any form. The other 48 states have rejected it. Because the firing squad is a relic of the past and is infrequently used, it is vulnerable to constitutional challenge. Rather than avoiding litigation, reinstating this device guarantees protracted legal proceedings and enormous costs to the state.
Of even more concern, supporters’ claim that reinstating the firing squad does not challenge the legitimacy of the death penalty itself is patently false. By supporting the firing squad as a tool of death, Utah endorses not only the killing of others by the use of an outmoded tool, but it also supports the taking of human life generally. International opposition to HB11 illustrates that reintroducing the firing squad in Utah endorses capital punishment itself. Indeed, in the few days since HB11 was passed by the Legislature, national and international journalists have accused Utah of cruelty and indifference to human life.
Utah risks losing its moral standing and influence among other states and nations by reinstating this cruel execution device. Utah leaders frequently portray Utahns (accurately so) as compassionate, caring and fair-minded. But the state’s reliance on the death penalty stands in direct opposition to accepted principles of decency and enlightened thought. Utah should be a leader in the world on moral issues and not seek to turn back the clock to a more insensitive, debasing time.
Further, Utah’s endorsement of capital punishment diminishes its role as a criminal justice reform leader. The Legislature’s recent adoption of criminal justice reform reflects a growing awareness that current policies are failing the people of this state, including offenders, and waste millions of taxpayer dollars. The reform movement also reflects an awareness that research-based approaches to crime not only save money but also improve people’s lives. In contrast to these policies, research shows that the death penalty does not deter crime and, in fact, costs far more money to administer than imprisonment. The death penalty and the firing squad rely on old ways of thinking that result in extraordinary expense and wasted human potential.
Utah should join the clear trend among other states to abandon the use of the death penalty and to identify more effective ways to prevent crime and deal with human frailty. Just in the past few years, several states have abolished the death penalty and more are lining up to do so. Utah will be left behind in this effort and become even more isolated morally. With so much to gain and so much to lose in the fight over capital punishment, the clear decision is to choose better ways to deal with violence.
L. Monte Sleight is president of Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Kent R. Hart is executive director.