Salt Lake City - A vote by Utah lawmakers to bring back executions by firing squad is the most dramatic illustration yet of the nationwide frustration over bungled executions and shortages of lethal-injection drugs.
Utah and several other states are scrambling to modify their laws on the heels of a botched Oklahoma lethal injection last year and one in Arizona in which the condemned man took nearly two hours to die. Meanwhile, Texas executed a Mexican mafia hit man on Wednesday evening with its second-to-last dosage of drugs.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert has declined to say if he will sign the firing-squad bill, a decision that's not expected for a week or so.
"States are wondering which way to go, and one way is to send up a warning flag that if you don't allow us freedom in this lethal-injection area, we'll do something else," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Death Penalty Information Centre, which opposes capital punishment.
"This might be a message rather than a preferred route of punishment."
"Trained marksmen faster, more humane"
States have struggled to keep up their drug inventories as European manufacturers opposed to capital punishment refuse to sell the components of lethal injections to US prisons. The Texas deadline is the most imminent, but other states are struggling, too.
The Utah bill's sponsor, Representative Paul Ray, argues that a team of trained marksmen is faster and more humane than the drawn-out deaths involved when lethal injections go awry.
Though Utah's next execution is probably a few years away, Ray said Wednesday that he wants to settle on a backup method now so authorities are not racing to find a solution if the drug shortage drags on.
Opponents, however, said firing squads are a cruel holdover from another era and will earn the state international condemnation.
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Lawmakers stopped offering inmates the choice of firing squad in 2004, saying the method attracted intense media interest and took attention away from victims.
Outside the US, 54 countries allow executions by gunshot, including China, Vietnam, Uganda and Afghanistan, according to Cornell University Law School's Death Penalty Worldwide project. Of those, 41 countries allow full firing squads while the others do it differently, such as by a single bullet at close range. Fewer than half of those countries have done a firing squad execution in the last decade, the school's research has found.
Utah is the only state in the past 40 years to carry out such a death sentence, with three executions by firing squad since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The last was in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was put to death by five police officers with .30-caliber Winchester rifles in an event that generated international interest and elicited condemnation from many.
The American Civil Liberties Union decried Gardner's execution as an example of the "barbaric, arbitrary and bankrupting practice of capital punishment." Religious leaders at the time called for an end to the death penalty at an interfaith vigil in Salt Lake City.
Three more death-row inmates who chose firing squad before the law changed would still have the option after their appeals are exhausted. If those executions go forward, prison authorities will choose the gunmen from a pool of volunteer officers, starting with those in the area where the crime happened, Ray said.
"We've always had a lot more volunteers than actually had spots," he said.