Death by firing squad: debate over death penalty heats up

The legislature is currently debating the death penalty, or rather, how to most effectively carry it out.

Thirty-two states have the death penalty in the US but it’s important to note that throughout the world, it is only legal in 4 industrialized democracies, the United States, Japan, Singapore and South Korea although they have a moratorium on executions.

The Supreme Court briefly suspended the death penalty from 1972 through 1976 but when it was reinstated, Utah was the first state to resume the practice with the firing squad execution of Gary Gilmore.

Representative Paul Ray has a bill that would bring back the firing squad as an approved method of execution. Rather than merely focusing on the means, there are good reasons to use this as an opportunity to begin a serious dialogue about the death penalty and debate the merits of government sanctioned executions.

Over the last several years, the United States has experienced a shortage of the drugs used in lethal injections. The only US manufacturer stopped producing them in 2011 so states had to acquire them from European drug manufacturers. But the European Union has outlawed the export of any product that can be used to take a life, seriously curtailing the availability of the drugs and has requiring states to experiment with various drug combinations. This has not gone well. In three recent executions, inmates gasped and groaned, and took as long as an hour and a half to finally die. One actually died from a heart attack brought on by the trauma.

There has been an increase in cases being overturned because of newly available DNA evidence showing that trials are far from perfect and causing several states to revisit their death penalty laws.

Public opinion has changed over the years with increasing support for alternatives to the death penalty, including the option of sentences of life without parole.

There are economic factors to consider as well. Death row inmates cost the state significantly more than other inmates, owing primarily to the extensive appeals process and the increased expense of housing death row inmates. In Utah, it is estimated that it costs $1.6 million dollars extra for every death row case.

But there is another important factor to consider here in Utah, and that’s time. The next inmate scheduled for execution is Ron Lafferty, on death row since 1984. Assuming his final appeals are exhausted, he is expected to be executed 3-4 years from now. There is simply no reason to rush into a decision about how to carry that out.

The state has a duty to mete out punishment and to ensure the public safety but that can be accomplished through other options besides execution.

We like to view ourselves as an evolved society but a truly enlightened approach would be to put the brakes on debating the how of the death penalty and spend more time talking about the why.

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